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Ah, The Traditional Russian Pedaller

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall.
04/06/2009 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 8 in C Minor (“Pathétique”), Op. 13
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition

Vladimir Feltsman (Piano)

Was Carnegie Hall less than packed last night due to economic hardship? Or because of disappointment that pianist Krystian Zimerman had cancelled? The latter would seem unlikely, since Vladimir Felstman hardly plays second fiddle—or second piano—to anyone. A Russian enfant terrible several decades ago, Mr. Feltsman metaphorically set fire to the piano the way rock stars literally set fire to their guitars. At that time, he could have been called a piano libertarian, taking license whenever he felt it was necessary.

But Mr. Feltsman got away with it, simply because his innate musicianship set limitations to his personal sense of freedom. One might say that his fiery temperament was due to what he felt was unofficial anti-Semitism in his native country. Perhaps his move to America changed things, or perhaps simply he became—oh, how any artist should hate this word!!—mature.

Famed as he is, though, the seats were not packed, Perhaps because some were attracted to Zimerman’s more adventurous program. Bach and the towering Beethoven Opus 111, as well as Brahms, and the rarely heard Szymanowski Polish Folk Theme Variations.

Mr. Feltsman didn’t insure an audience, but he did assure that his audience would enjoy his more conservative program. And the first half was indeed played with strength, virility and almost a business-like attitude in making the piano sing. His manner is energetic and humorous. He strides out to the piano, doesn’t look for a moment at the keys but simply starts the action. He finishes each piece with a flourish and a wave, as if to say, “Well, that was difficult, but I had fun.” After Pictures At An Exhibition, he waved his right arm, as if it was all tired out, before sweeping through two encores.

He was also an unashamed pedaller. No purist he, Mr. Feltsman used the pedal in the opening of the Bach Second Partita, not to resonate, but to emphasizes different lines. In fact, the main themes were often subordinate to what most pianists would consider supplementary themes, bringing out songs not heard before. True, in the final Gigue, Feltsman played with such dominance that he sometimes hit the right note and the adjacent note. But one could put up with it.

The Beethoven Pathétique was hardly idiosyncratic, no liberties were taken, but the outer movements danced along a high-tension wire, the sudden scale passages flying by. The most memorable moments, though, came in the Adagio cantabile, which had the placidity, the smooth, unruffled stillness of a boat on a moonlit lake. Too often, pianists take those rising bass phrases as portents of a black thought behind the movement. Mr. Feltsman saw them as mere ripples, a slight rustling of a most peaceful seascape.

Yet all of this was forgotten with Mr. Feltsman’s Mussorgsky. It began with a Promenade played with pedals down, overtones accentuated, resonances which must sound like the Hermitage Museum at midnight. In fact, each of the Promenades was painted a different color, a different tempo. Yes, that is the way it was composed, but Mr. Feltsman took Mussorgsky’s directions and planted them firmly on is own turf. The Two Jews was less the cartoon than a touching portrait. The Old Castle was whispering, shaking in the wind. We could hear the children of The Tuileries not simply chattering but—through sudden stops and starts—acing as unpredictably as les enfants will do.

The climax of the work was of course Mr. Feltsman pulling off all the stops, turning the Promenades into thousand Orthodox church bells tolling a thousand Orthodox Easters. Then, with that characteristic modest shrug, he dazzled the audience with two Rachmaninoff encores. Only one problem with this second half. It was so personal, so appealing, so heartfelt that one secretly wished his entire recital had been devoted to Mother Russia herself.

Harry Rolnick



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