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For Absent Friends

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/31/2004 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partitas Nos. 1 & 2
Frederic Chopin: Four Ballades

Vladimir Feltsman (piano)

“Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers,
finds the most wonderful stars…I do not climb so high.
A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the
soul and heart of man.”

Frederic Chopin

When Vladimir Feltsman came to these shores sixteen years ago, no one quite knew what to make of him. Billed by the Columbia publicity machine as a Russian bear who would furiously intone the wilder pieces of the steppes, he was much more interested in thoughtful explorations of the German repertoire. Somehow his persona and his personality never quite reconciled and he carved out his niche here in New York as a teacher and local treasure. On Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, Feltsman again found himself a surrogate for Russian expansiveness, substituting at very short notice for Arcadi Volodos and jettisoning a Rachmaninoff program in favor of Bach and Chopin. Anyone who was irritated by the switch must have had not only a heart of stone but ears to match.

However, the absence of Mr. Volodos was not the overriding one this evening. All of us were shocked to learn of the obscenely untimely death of Carnegie executive director Robert Harth the night before. It goes without saying that a period of only 47 years is a ridiculously short time for anyone to spend on this earth, but what truly stuns one is the instant memory of this vibrant and vital man, who truly became a force in this town in only two years of service. Highly energetic and dynamic, he is remembered today for his affability and flamboyance (I always secretly envied his extreme self-confidence which allowed him to sport a cape in public). Mr. Harth made no secret of his penchant for popular music and had begun to steer Carnegie and its adjunct halls in programmatic directions that disappointed many patrons of a more traditional bent, but no one could deny his passion for innovation and improvement, nor his all-encompassing commitment to excellence. It is perhaps most telling that he died right here at Carnegie Hall.

To a purist, Mr. Feltsman’s approach to Bach must be like fingernails on the blackboard, but not being of that school, I found his big-boned traversals highly exciting. It occurs to me that if old Bach were alive today, he might very well choose a five octave electric piano as his instrument of choice anyway. These were powerfully emotional performances (I suppose this phrase would be considered an insult by the period instrument crowd) that remained rhythmically true to the original, even while committing many delicious sins of dynamic fluctuation. Much more interested in sonic effect, like Murray Perahia, and much less concerned with contemplative mathematical balance than András Schiff, this artist falls somewhere in the middle of the modern piano argument for these stunning works. For this listener, the final capriccio of the Second Partita was as thrilling as it is likely to get in contemporary Baroque performance.

Not that any of us came to hear this child of the tundra peruse Bach! Stereotypes are hard to ignore and we were all really looking forward to romantic, even a bit excessive, Chopin. Feltsman did not demure, producing a highly charged set of the ballades notable for acrobatic rubato and idiosyncratic shifts of tempi. Not the most accurate practitioner, he nevertheless finds the dramatic center of these wild pieces, exposing them (and therefore us) to windswept moments of tingling clarity. This recital was surprisingly short and, one would suppose, was designed to allow for a rather longish set of encores, but, under the circumstances, the artist instead made a brief announcement expressing grief over the death of our friend and sent him off lovingly with an exquisite performance of one little Chopin waltz, the last notes of which seeming to simply waft into eternity.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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