Last night, after a long wait, pianist Till Fellner made his San Francisco debut in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Piano series at Herbst Theatre. (Ironically, this turned out to be a hail-and-farewell occasion, as this was the last SFP concert that would take place in Herbst before the building would close for its two-year renovation.) He prepared a program with the classical tradition at its core in the form of two sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, respectively. These were set in the retrospective context of Johann Sebastian Bach and the prospective context of Robert Schumann.
The Mozart sonata was K. 533 in F major, whose concluding Rondo was the earlier K. 494. This is a relatively late work, composed in January of 1788 shortly after the premiere of Don Giovanni (K. 527); and it bears a certain polished elegance. However, there is no shortage of playful wit, not necessarily in the manner of Mozart showing off to others but rather as if Mozart were savoring the pleasures of his own inventiveness. Fellner performed this sonata with the sort of light touch that captured this sense of personal pleasure, allowing the audience to share in the delights without having to contend with excessive virtuoso exhibitionism.
This sense of personal intimate pleasure was also evident in the Haydn sonata, Hoboken XVI/32 in B minor, composed in 1776 during his period of service at Eszterháza. In many respects this is music of personal exploration, as Haydn works out different rhetorical strategies within the logical and grammatical conventions of what we now call “the classical style.” The second movement is one of those delightful games that Haydn seemed to enjoy, involving composing a minuet that could not possibly be danced as a minuet, taking the underlying form and twisting it around to serve his own needs. The first movement also provides several examples of Haydn’s interest in the rhetoric of silence, an interest that would attract Mozart’s attention and, many decades later, would rub off on Haydn’s student, the young Ludwig van Beethoven. Here, again, Fellner excellently captured Haydn’s exploratory spirit and his inclination to approach invention as a matter of “serious play.”
One might have thought that Beethoven would be the logical successor to these selections by Mozart and Haydn. Instead, however, Fellner chose to conclude his recital with Schumann’s Opus 13 “Symphonic Studies.” This is a collection of twelve études, nine of which are structured as variations on an opening theme. When Schumann published this work in 1837, there were additional variations; but Schumann cut these when he published a revised edition in 1852. Five of those deleted variations were then restored by Johannes Brahms in 1890 and published as Opus 13a. Fellner interleaved these recovered variations among the études published in 1852 edition. His insertion points were clearly chosen as a result of careful thought; but I, personally, continue to side with Schumann’s own personal judgment in his revision.
My reasoning is that there is a dramatic flow to the 1852 version through which Schumann used the études to explore the conflicting personalities of Florestan and Eusebius. Fellner clearly tried to insert the restored variations without disrupting that flow, but his success was only partial. Nevertheless, his overall performance certainly captured much of that underlying dramatic tension; and he handled the final étude, which, in many respects, constitutes a “triumph of Florestan,” with an energetic pacing through which Florestan’s manic qualities were pushed to the brink of sanity.
In this context of how Schumann had built upon the classical tradition, it seemed appropriate for Fellner to begin with Bach as a motivating force behind that tradition. He opened his program with the first four prelude/fugue pairs in the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 870–873). In these brief selections one could appreciate the diversity that Bach could bring to those pieces to which he assigned the labels “prelude” and “fugue.” While Fellner did not follow András Schiff’s approach of performing Bach without using the damper pedal, he had his own techniques for bringing clarity to the interleaving contrapuntal voices; and he knew how to treat the disclosure of Bach’s capacity for invention as a journey of discovery.
It thus seemed appropriate that, after the thundering conclusion of Schumann’s Opus 13 had receded, Fellner should return to Bach for his encore. He performed the Sarabande from the A minor “English” suite (BWV 807), one of the best-known examples for which Bach wrote out the embellishments to be taken when each of the two sections are repeated. This closed out the evening with a sense of quiet dignity but also in a manner that honored the diversity of invention that had been explored throughout the entire program.