Cold War survivor opens concert series

October 16, 1992|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

The late, unlamented Cold War certainly left its mark on the world of music.

A lanky Texan pianist named Van Cliburn achieved immortality when he became the first American to win the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958.

When a Richter, Gilels or Oistrakh came to the United States in periods of diplomatic thaw, the air was as redolent of international summitry as it was of music.

And when the Soviets tried to sabotage the career of a young, highly regarded Russian pianist named Vladimir Feltsman because he applied to emigrate to Israel, the Western publicity machine trumpeted the tale of the "the latest Russian lion of the piano" brutally silenced by Communist authorities.

Eight years later, Mr. Feltsman was allowed to leave. He came to the United States as a phenomenon first and a pianist second. Within a month, he was playing Scott Joplin rags for Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House.

Despite such a glorious beginning, the transition was a bumpy one for the 40-year-old pianist who will play the music of Bach, Mozart and Schumann to open the Distinguished Artist Series at the U.S. Naval Academy's Alumni Hall at 7:30 this evening.

The pressures that come with intense critical scrutiny, a Columbia recording contract and a grueling schedule in excess of 100 concerts per year all took their toll on the pianist who, it turned out, was not a fiery romantic a la Horowitz and the Russian school, but a more measured, analytical musician.

The hype has faded, the career has been reassessed, the schedule has eased and the initial bumps have been smoothed.

"Things are where they need to be for me right now," Mr. Feltsman said on the telephone from his home in a Hudson Valley forest some 80 miles north of New York City. "I'm playing around 50 concerts a year right now, and it is much better to have scaled back from the 100 I was playing. This is enough for me."

Mr. Feltsman still remains very much in demand with finest orchestras. He recently returned from concerts with Dennis Russell Davies in Bonn, Germany (Beethoven's home town), and in the coming weeks he will appear with the orchestras of Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Petersburg.

Recitals like this evening's, which will feature Schumann's "Carnival" and Bach's Second Partita are something of a rarity; the bulk of his engagements with orchestras.

As for recording, the association with CBS/Sony has ended, but Mr. Feltsman has begun an affiliation with the Music Masters label that is producing promising results. His recording of Bach's monumental "Goldberg Variations" just hit the shelves and his accounts of the final Beethoven sonatas and the Book I of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" will be released this winter.

"I did not really do very much Bach in my piano studies in the Soviet Union," he says, "but his music has always had an impact on me. I remember listening to Klemperer's 'St. Matthew Passion' and, of course, to Glenn Gould's 'Goldberg Variations' and being inspired by them."

Mr. Feltsman's account of the "Variations" is destined to turn a few heads. It is an absorbing, stunningly played version recorded live at the Moscow Conservatory. All repeats are taken, save for the final statement of the Aria. And, in provocative fashion, the pianist occasionally switches voices so that upper parts move to the lower register while tenor and bass lines move upward.

"It is a structure that functions independently within itself and might be viewed from any angle," he writes in his notes.

There will be much critical discussion, but the pianist is clearly ready for it.

"For some people, this recording might be as a shock," he writes. "There's no question that my interpretation is extremely unusual, and I'm ready to take any blame or glory for it."

It is a riveting, sometimes jarring performance; a dramatic reformulation of one of the greatest works of all.

"First, people came to look at me," Vladimir Feltsman said back in 1989. "Now, they come to listen."

A good thing it is too, for as his "Goldberg Variations" indicate, he has plenty to say.

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