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Ghost in the Machine

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
05/13/2000 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Sonata Hob. XVI:49
Johannes Brahms: Handel Variations
Frederic Chopin: Two Polonaises Op. 26, Barcarolle Op. 60, Ballade # 4

Vladimir Feltsman (piano)

The obscenely avaricious methods of the pop music world have virtually totally swallowed up the gentleman's game of classical record marketing to the point where recently the world's largest manufacturer of serious music reproductions, EMI, announced that it was closing its classical division entirely and integrating its artists into the rock catalogue. After having appropriated even the concept of the diva, the pop world, because of its economic hegemony, is currently treated as if it were an intellectual equal of the classical and some formerly respectable journals, including the New York Times, today lump all articles and reviews of both under the one heading of "music". Classical artists are now handled by the same publicity machine as their vapid brethren and radio stations have become interested in only the "top 40" of the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the theory is that this type of marketing will generate more sales, the numbers show just the opposite and further diminish the argument that appealing to the masses will ensure that an artist, in the right hands, will develop more quickly and lucratively, considerations of artistic value being relegated to the irrelevant. After suffering through the overhyped Anne-Sophie Mutter this season and already having scheduled the artist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy for next, I am sensitive to the difference between the sexy package and the actual product. Any young artist interested in this type of approach might do well to study the case of Vladimir Feltsman, a quietly serious artist who was crushed by the publicity machine like the protagonist of Kafka's Penal Colony.

The handsome young Russian was hailed in the 1980's as the next Richter, portrayed as mysteriously emerging from behind the Iron Curtain a brooding, colorful interpreter of the Eastern big and splashy pieces from Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff and destined to make American ladies swoon with his extroverted Romanticism. Except that this tundra grizzly turned out to be more a Paddington, preferring the delicate poetics of Schumann and Schubert to the wild leaps of Scriabin and Prokofieff. Unfortunately for Mr. Feltsman, his agent wanted him to wow the public with Russian music and he was forced to try and quickly shift artistic gears while an eager public waited on the other side of the curtain. He never felt comfortable with the repertoire foisted upon him by the publicity people and soon became one of New York's most talented has-beens, making his living modestly as a teacher, free to explore the less bombastic German music which more suited his thoughtful temperament. He did, however, find one audience which immediately embraced him, the largely Eastern and Central European Jewish community that is the core membership of the 92nd Street Y and its magnificently uncompromising chamber music series. Last evening he expounded pianistically on the old saw

Of all the words of tongue or pen

The saddest are these: it might have been

Feltsman is an energetic, if inaccurate, pianist who reminds me of Andre Watts, more interested in the totality of a piece that in the sum of its parts. After a brisk reading of the Haydn, he fudged his way through the difficult Brahms Variations, making literally dozens of major mistakes and destroying any sense of the remarkable inventiveness of the composer. He playfully castigated with his eyes the audience members who began to applaud after the variations and before the fugue but perhaps it would have served him better to concentrate on the keyboard, for he became hopelessly lost in the last quarter of the polyphony and had to compose his own ending for the work. To his credit, he got up from his bench laughing at himself, a luxury that we were not afforded by the bounds of good taste.

In the Chopin he fared better, but seemed, for example in the Ballade, to be unable (or unwilling) to make the big gesture necessary to communicate the epic poetry of the piece to his willing public. At the end of the day he just made this terrifically passionate music seem dull and listless. This lack of emotion only accentuated all of the physical mistakes and I for one became both bored and irritated. Feltsman, who had elicited my sympathy in the first half of the program, was left seeming just another pedestrian typist in need of the big bottle of white out. Upon leaving the hall I had to weave my way through a long line of autograph seekers. I would have stayed and waited with them, but I figured that he would probably just spell his name wrong.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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