Feltsman’s remarkable virtuosity cuts to the music’s heart of darkness

Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 1:59 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Vladmir Feltsman performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Vladimir Feltsman is one of those musicians who often divide critical opinion, a pianist possessed of a stainless-steel technique but one who tends to come across as a cold, even prickly personality who often holds the music at arms’ length.

In his recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center, the Russian pianist showed that in the right repertoire he remains just as formidable an artist as a blazing technician. Feltsman’s meat-and-potatoes program of Mozart, Schubert and Chopin offered some astounding feats of prestidigitation, but more impressive still was his engagement with the music, in a program with a heart of darkness that played to his strengths.

The Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is that rarest of creations, an unfinished work by Mozart. The spirited Rococo element is overshadowed by a fragile lyricism and mercurial sturm und drang, venturing into dark regions that seem to anticipate Beethoven. Feltsman emphasized the fleeting bleakness and shadows effectively, which made his opting for the light-heartedly inapt Breitkopf and Hartel coda rather baffling.

Schubert’s Impromptus fit the Russian’s sensibility especially well, with their singing lines and hair-trigger emotional gear-shifts. In the first set of four (D.899), Feltsman had the full measure of this mercurial music, assaying the imposing technical demands nearly flawlessly and showing himself in synch with the music’s blend of bravura and stark lyric intimacy.

He was especially inspired at conveying that Schubertian stare into the abyss as with the bleak rumination of No. 1 in C minor, taking an expansive view that he managed to sustain, with even the drawn-out, Romanticized coda convincing. The ensuing Impromptu in E flat major provided immediate contrast with the swirling right-hand waltz-theme and the passing shadows of the ben marcato section firmly contrasted.

Feltsman showed less engagement with the sunnier outer sections of No. 3 in G flat, yet his fluency and grace were unassailable, transitions deftly turned. The final Impromptu in A flat was exceptional, the cascading virtuosity and stromy drama held in a finely judged balance.

Tackling just one of Chopin’s knuckle-busting Ballades is a daunting challenge for most pianists. Leave it to Feltsman to program all four in a single unbroken arc, and, amazingly, pull off the feat so well, in performances that offered depth and eloquence as well as old-fashioned-thrilling keyboard razzle-dazzle.

The bardic story-telling element was made clear at the outset of No. 1, with Feltsman importing a definitive “once upon a time” feeling to the opening measures. Rarely will one hear the ludicrous difficulties of these works thrown off with such power and velocity, the bravura sections of the First and Third Ballades jaw-dropping in their finely chiseled virtuosity.

Again, Feltsman may be too cool for some in this repertoire, but his playing is not without feeling—even it’s more lucidly elegant than expressively yielding, as with the poised nostalgia of No. 4, which surely set the scene for the explosive climax that followed.

For all the demands of Sunday’s program, Feltsman seemed to be enjoying himself more than is often the case. After a woman’s mezzo-forte “woo” prematurely broke the silence from the unusually quiet and attentive audience following Ballade No. 3, the pianist held out an index finger in a gesture of mock-warning, as if to say, “Just one more work, then you can applaud.”

And applaud they did, for a remarkable afternoon of keyboard artistry. The enthusiastic ovations brought the pianist out for more relaxed and nimble Chopin encores, his second perfectly timed so the last notes at the top of the keyboard were tossed off with a quick goodbye wave.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Feltsman’s remarkable virtuosity cuts to the music’s heart of darkness”

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm by Paul Cohan

    exactly . . . thanks so much for starting this web site; what a find!

  2. Posted Nov 11, 2009 at 9:17 am by Grazia Francioli

    Thank you for excellent review. The concert was stunning and in his answers at the reception afterward he affirmed his humor, charm intensity and optimism.

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