Portland Piano International review: Vladimir Feltsman


Vladimir Feltsman. Photo by Jim Leisy.

Vladimir Feltsman. Photo by Jim Leisy.


“There is a certain situation in the life of every human that is beyond his or her control,” Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman told Oregon ArtsWatch. “That was my case for eight years.”

Born in Moscow in 1952, Feltsman applied for an exit visa in 1979, and the Soviet Union responded by labeling him a “refusenik.” His music suddenly disappeared from the public eye. The government banned his public performances and recordings from Soviet radio stations and stores. After a performance at the U.S. ambassador’s house, his car tires were slashed. He arrived at another house performance to find the piano strings cut and bent.

In 1987, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz appealed to the Russian government on Feltsman’s behalf, and finally Feltsman was allowed to leave his country and come live in the United States. “I survived because I knew that finally I would be let out of there, and I had to be ready,” Feltsman said. “I worked very hard for eight years; it was a blessing in disguise because I had plenty of time to learn new music, to read books, to develop. Those eight years were an important though difficult time, and I would not trade them for anything.”

Now an American citizen, Feltsman teaches at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and is a member of the piano faculty at the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He is also the founder and artistic director of the International Festival-Institute PianoSummer at New Paltz. Perhaps because of his eight years of artistic isolation, Feltsman is not a pianist who gives easy answers or panders to other’s needs for inspiration and affirmation. His musical convictions are not displayed in excitable acrobatics but are laser-beamed at the points where his fingertips touch the keys.

“Watch all of the great pianists,” he advised 15-year old Jim Yang at Portland Piano International’s Up Close with the Masters last week, “and you will see that they are centered and still. No movement above the keys makes a sound. It is here,” indicating his fingertips on the keys. Certainly Portlanders left his Sunday and Monday PPI concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall feeling inspired and better engaged with the “universal mind” to which Feltsman often refers.

“Play what you hear,” Feltsman told 23-year old Natalie Burton at this same master class, “and others will hear it, too.” In the moment he was referring to the many counterpoint lines in J.S. Bach’s E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 876, but this philosophy also explains why listening to Feltsman perform two of Bach’s partitas on Sunday afternoon felt like stepping behind life’s curtain to discover, with joyful relief, a simple, sturdy framework inlaid with infinitely fascinating detail.

Feltsman coaches Natalie Burton at Portland Piano International master class. Photo: Andie Petkus.

Feltsman coaches Natalie Burton at Portland Piano International master class. Photo: Andie Petkus.

“Bach is one of the very few people in Western culture alongside Dante, Shakespeare, and maybe Joyce who participated in the universal mind and spirit,” Feltsman explained. “This universal mind is what makes our life worth living and is the source of everything. Bach made himself available for a certain work, which we all have to do in our life, and he created conditions for himself so that whatever came through him he was capable of receiving and articulating through his music. Bach’s music sustained me and nurtured me for most of my life, and I’m simply very grateful that it exists. I can’t imagine music or my life without it.”

Feltsman’s reverence for Bach, whose music he has often performed and recorded, was apparent in his discussion on editions and performance practice towards the end of the master class. Feltsman insisted that any edition of Bach’s music with dynamic and articulation markings should be “burned at the stake” as Bach’s original manuscripts show just the notes. (See for yourself!)  “There is only one edition of Bach: his own,” Feltsman declared. “So you must use your common sense, and then playing his pieces becomes quite easy.” The room full of piano teachers and students laughed with Feltsman, knowing that our common sense is often quite convoluted.

Feltsman’s own sense is anything but common, and his original ornamentation presented fresh and innovative perspectives on Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 and Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. An audience member asked his companion at intermission, “Is he listening to the instrument or to the music?” The listener recognized Feltsman’s decision to avoid stark dynamic contrasts and to rely instead on texture and timbre variations to highlight counterpoint lines. Because the action and colors on a piano can vary widely across the span of its 88 keys, achieving these subtle but vital differences requires absolute concentration on the individual instrument’s sound production. Fortunately for listener and performer, the Steinway piano in Lincoln Hall is fabulous and gave Feltsman the freedom to focus more on the power of his sound.

Feltsman revealed his powerful pianistic range in his Sunday performance of one of the most radical pieces of the 20th century,  Alexander Scriabin’s Toward the Flame.  I have never been able to follow so many melodic lines in this piece as I did in Feltsman’s performance. His voicing of the mystic chord (see this University of Oregon master student’s article for a great explanation), particularly his focus on inner dissonant characters, wormed its way into the ear and exploded into the bright trumpeting tritones at the end.

“The power of one’s sound has nothing do with how hard you hit the keys,” explained Feltsman the following morning. “This is a common misconception. Sound is primarily created by the velocity, the speed with which you approach and leave the key.”

In contrast to Feltsman’s flame-throwing fingers in the Scriabin, his performance of the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46 on Monday night was the essence of tenderness. Feltsman played the simple melody with so much rubato that one might have protested, except that it sounded perfect, especially in contrast with the more rigid textures of Bach still ringing in the ear from the night before. Feltsman’s rubato derives from the fingertips and not from ridiculous shoulder rolls or orgasmic facial expressions. Through generous timing, he emphasized the notes in the melody he deemed most pleasant in the moment and used the silence between notes to highlight surprising harmonies or flirtatious ornaments.

While centered and still as a performer, Feltsman displayed a welcoming stage presence. Everyone spoke delightedly of the kiss he blew the audience after his encore of Franz Liszt’s third Dream of Love (Liebesträum) on Sunday evening before he ended the concert with the brief but prayerful first Album Leaf  from Robert Schumann’s collection, Colored Leaves. And it was with deep appreciation that audience members noted how utterly spent he appeared at the end of both Sunday and Monday night: sweat glistening on forehead, tired arms dropped at his side, and a deliberate, slow walk that clearly expressed a need for a recliner and drink.

Here’s a video of another piece I did not stop smiling through as Feltsman performed it, Schumann’s Carnival.

There’s so much more to discuss! Were you at the master class or concerts? What struck you about Feltsman’s teaching and performance? Please leave comments below.

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist, writer, and teacher.

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One Response.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    First, thank you for this wonderful story. I feel so fortunate that I was able to hear both recitals, plus the master class. “Up Close” really illuminated Feltsman’s approach to music and how he gets his sound. Those teaching sessions add so much depth to the performance experience.

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