Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: Vladimir Feltsman

Sept. 17, Virginia Commonwealth University

By Brian Plante
guest reviewer

This past weekend was something of a feast for local music lovers, with the season-openers of the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts and “La Traviata” from the new Lyric Opera Virginia packed into three days.

It was also frustrating for many patrons, as Richmond continued its unwelcome tradition of staging major musical events at the same time. (The first of two symphony concerts was also on Sept. 17; the symphony and “Traviata” repeated on the afternoon of Sept. 18.) No doubt the scheduling conflict with the symphony accounted for so many empty seats at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center, where the appearance of an artist with the international stature of pianist Vladimir Feltsman should have assured a full house.

Feltsman is not a newcomer to Richmond; he last played here in 2001. On this visit, his formidable technique, large tonal palette and artistic sensitivity were amply displayed in a program that siphoned the cream of keyboard composers. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat major preceded Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata, which was followed by the four Chopin ballades.

Such a program offers up several possibilities: the excitement of interpretive leaps that bring new depth or luster to familiar works; the simple pleasure of a reunion with old friends; or the temptation to separate from the crowd and put a personal stamp on the music, with the attendant risk of making it edgy, quirky or over-the-top. Feltsman left none of those stones unturned.

The partita, a creation of the so-called “happy Bach,” was very much in keeping with the standard pianistic approach to baroque keyboard music. Feltsman employed a limited dynamic range, steady tempos, and largely eschewed the pedal. What made his playing exceptional was its clarity and articulation, judicious use of a variety of touches and luminous tone. Each of the seven movements was given its own personality, and Feltsman was equally at home with the rhythmic pulse of the more folk-like dances and the almost operatic lines of the slower sections.

The “Pathétique” Sonata took a very different course. Feltsman exploited his technical prowess to unleash the nervous energy that drives the first movement, but the liberties of tempo and dynamics taken in the slow introduction foreshadowed things to come.

The melodious opening theme of the second movement seemed deliberately straightforward, almost a setup for the unexpected shift to the rubatos and rhythmic flux that permeated the middle section and carried over into the return of the original theme. As a result, the performance as a whole took on an improvisational quality and, to this listener, served almost as a metaphor of Beethoven’s growth and liberation from the constraints of classicism.

Feltsman’s temperament was completely in tune with the dramatic ebbs and flows of the Chopin ballades, which took up the last half of this program. His tonal command and romantic sensibility admirably captured both the fire and poetry that illuminate these works, and he tossed off their technical challenges with great aplomb.