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Feltsman Returns to Washington

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Musorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition

Online scores:
Haydn, Hob. XVI:49
Beethoven, op. 13, "Pathétique"
Musorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
Washington Performing Arts Society brought Vladimir Feltsman back to Washington, for a recital at Strathmore. After being welcomed to the United States by the Reagans in 1987, including performing his American debut at the White House, the Russian-born pianist gave a number of recitals in Washington in the last decade of the 20th century but has not performed here recently, at least not in the history of Ionarts. This long absence and lack of showy notoriety may explain why the Music Hall was relatively undersold, with more empty seats throughout the house than expected for an artist at Feltsman's level. True, he has never not had a contract with a major recording label in recent years, but he has made several highly regarded recordings, with a burgeoning set of particularly fine Bach (Jens has reviewed the concertos and the Goldberg Variations). To be sure, those who did show up were treated to quite a show.

A Classical first half paired sonatas by Haydn and Beethoven that were composed within a decade of one another. Feltsman, who has recently made a number of performances of the Mozart sonatas on his own fortepiano, gave a semi-detached articulation to many sections of the Haydn sonata (E♭ major, Hob. XVI:49) but was not afraid to take advantage of the qualities of the modern Steinway, like its booming bass. It is a work of many attractive qualities, like the mysterious turn to A♭ in the closing section of the exposition, which Feltsman drew out for its suspenseful qualities, further enhancing that motif's return later in the development, used by Haydn to torque up the anticipation of the recapitulation. The second movement featured finely etched handling of the many filigree turns and embellishments, as well as a Beethovenian touch to the fantasy-like middle section in the parallel minor. The third movement, set in a Tempo di Minuetto, was graceful and impeccably athletic in its fingerwork.

Feltsman's interpretation of Beethoven's op. 13 ("Pathétique") was wild and woolly, as if always seeking the elusive and unheard interpretation and often coming up with the merely odd one. It was an approach to Beethoven, broad-toned and even angrily stormy, that is expected by many listeners, which pointed out just how polished and restrained the same sonata was in the hands of Till Fellner earlier in the week, during the continuation of the Austrian pianist's Beethoven cycle. Risks taken in the choice of fast tempi paid off in the overall excitement level of Feltsman's performance, with the inevitable hand slips here and there. In the Grave sections of the first movement, he rendered the forte-piano markings in an unforgettable way, especially on the very first one, lifting the pedal slightly to allow the sound to decay strikingly, creating an almost overtone-like sound.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Feltsman offers pianistic "Pictures" (Washington Post, March 29)
By far, however, the high point of the evening was the second half, a prismatic and vividly told Pictures at an Exhibition. There is something to the way a Russian can play the work, which opens, let us not forget, with a Promenade theme marked with the indication "Tempo giusto, in the Russian way, without happiness, but a little sustained" (emphasis added). Feltsman's playing was technically assured, making for thrilling sweeps in the difficult movements, although with some minor imperfections in the devilish Baba-Yaga, which did not detract because they seemed like part of the movement's impishness.

Each movement really caught the spirit of the mood of the viewer confronting a new picture: a gloomy Vecchio Castello (true to the marking of "con dolore"), an antic tumble of kids at play in Tuileries, a hilarious tableau of newly hatched chicks going in every which direction in "Ballet des poussins." Just as the score markings instruct, Feltsman gave a fluttering lightness to the right-hand tremolos in the "Con mortuis" movement, allowing the mystical statement of the promenade theme, transformed into minor and marked "il canto marcato," to be heard. Two Chopin waltzes (F minor, op. 70/2, the ending in A♭ major dovetailing enharmonically with the beginning of the C♯ minor, op. 64/2), offered as a tribute to the Chopin Year ("although for a pianist, every year is a Chopin Year," Feltsman noted wryly), happily showed that rubato is about more than just slowing the tempo down; sometimes it is about speeding up, too.

For fans of fine piano playing, three recitals on the WPAS schedule the next two months will be must-hear affairs: Maurizio Pollini (April 15, 8 pm, Kennedy Center), Mitsuko Uchida (April 21, 8 pm, Strathmore), and Yuja Wang (May 22, 8 pm, 6th and I Historic Synagogue).


bkr said...

Charles: Terrific review. But I have to quibble with the assertion that "he has never had a contract with a major recording label.." Back in the days when Feltsman was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, he was a Columbia Masterworks artist...his first recording released in the US, made in 1984, was of the Chopin Preludes, famously recorded in the American Embassy in Moscow and smuggled out of the country via diplomatic pouch. That was followed up by a release of his "American Live Debut at Carnegie Hall" in 1987, and then a number of recordings of the big Russian concertos on CBS/Sony, including discs with the NSO.

Charles T. Downey said...

Of course you are right. A correction is forthcoming.