By Robert Pherigo, KCMetropolis.org
Vladimir Feltsman is a master pianist. He plays with absolute assuredness. His control over the sound that comes out of the piano is a pleasure to hear, playing cleanly yet with a wide range of colors at his disposal. Last Friday night he opened the Friends of Chamber Music season at the Folly Theater playing a program of Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, and Scriabin.
Starting with Haydn’s Sonata No. 31 (or No. 46, depending on which numbering system is used) in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46, Feltsman’s playing of the first movement, an Allegro moderato, was crisp, clean, sharp, and on the dry side, using the sustaining pedal sparingly. Like much of Haydn’s output there are musical surprises, twists and turns of tonality and rhythm that Feltsman highlighted with judicious use of rubato and/or accents. His turns and trills were a model of clarity. The second movement, an Adagio, opens with a simple left-hand melody rising and falling over sustained bass notes and was exquisitely played, drawing the listener in. The remainder of the movement was played with the same attention to detail and was quite beautiful. The third movement, marked Presto, was indeed taken at a very fast clip, perhaps losing some of the opportunity for musical humor, which is so prevalent in Haydn’s music. It was over in a flash.
Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (Op. Posth. 164) came next. In all three movements (Allegro ma non troppo, Allegretto quasi andantino, and Allegro vivace) Feltsman used, as in the Haydn, rubato, color, and an impressive control of differing lines to make this music come alive. Especially satisfying was the second movement rondo, which opens with a graceful lieder-like melody over a detached walking bass. This "song" comes back twice and is accompanied differently each time in the left hand. Feltsman seemed to really enjoy playing Schubert’s elegant writing.
The second half began with two compositions of Franz Liszt, the Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S. 171 and "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173. In Haydn and Schubert Feltsman’s use of rubato helped to make the music come alive, pointing out certain passages and giving them real meaning. A slight hesitation or slight speeding up gave shape to the musical line. In the Liszt however, the rubato tended to break the line up into small pieces and thus rendered the music less effective and meaningful than it could have been. Also at issue was Feltsman’s way of voicing the top note of chords heavily, thus robbing the chords of their full harmonic richness. Playing Liszt can be tricky; it’s easy to over-romanticize by stretching and compressing the pulse and taking too many liberties. Also, playing too fast can sometimes strip the music of its message. There were passages in both Liszt works in which, because of the speed at which they were played, the notes became mere filigree, without meaning. Overall it was masterful playing, but not always convincing as an interpretation.
The "Bénédiction," one of Liszt’s most exquisite creations, begins with a rising left-hand melody accompanied by a rising and falling arpeggio figure in the right hand. It’s an 8 bar phrase and when played fairly straight it becomes a long musical line that expresses in music the first line of the poem of Lamartine that inspired Liszt: "Whence comes, O God, this peace which floods over me."
Feltsman, though, played this with such push and pull that the long line was obliterated. One can argue that it is just a matter of taste but I am reminded of a masterclass given by Leon Fleisher in which he compared the structure of a piece of music to the human skeleton; there are places where movement (rubato) can happen, namely the joints, but if you try to move a bone where there is no joint you end up with a broken bone! Also of concern was the tempo, which felt like more of a half-time interpretation and which, along with the rubato, produced a hurried and almost anxious atmosphere. Having said all the above, Mr. Feltsman was always in total control and never uninteresting even if this listener was not convinced.
Scriabin’s Vers la flamme [Poème], Op. 72 brought the program to an end. This music expresses a feverish exhilaration, starting quietly and building to a fiery climax. The harmonic basis is the mystic hexachord of C, F-sharp, B-flat, E, A, and D, that is used by Scriabin in his later works. Mr. Feltsman played this without the last ounce of wildness that this work needs to really overwhelm the listener. The audience was appreciative though, and he graciously rewarded them with Liszt’s famous Liebestraum No. 3 as an encore.