The piano is easy to play badly, and hard to play well, and when it comes to playing well, there are a wide variety of approaches that could fit comfortably under that description.
But true master pianists have one great attribute that others lack, and that’s control. When a player can control every element of his or her performance so that the interpretation comes vividly to life, exemplary music-making is sure to follow. And so it was Wednesday night at the Society of the Four Arts, with the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman performing a recital of music by Haydn, Schubert, Liszt and Scriabin.
Those of us with longer memories can recall Feltsman’s silencing in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s before his thrilling emigration to the West in 1987, a standout moment of cultural intrigue in the long gray days of the Cold War. Since then, he has built a major career for himself, with ample recordings, performances around the world, and a fulfilling academic life at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
But his profile is not nearly as high as some other pianists of his generation, and that is a travesty, because the pianist who took the stage Wednesday night at the Gubelmann Auditorium is a musician of great substance, elegance and intelligence whose work deserves to be far better-known by the average concertgoer. This was the kind of accomplished pianism that nourishes and elevates, that provides insights to the listener even on recalling the performance days later.
Feltsman opened his recital with the Sonata No. 31 (in A-flat, Hob. XVI: 46) of Haydn, a work of delightful charm and notable purity with a searching, almost-Romantic slow movement that surely influenced Mozart, perhaps even in his operatic works. Still, Haydn’s writing for piano does not have the weight that best suits modern instruments, and this marvelous music often can sound thin or slight in recital.
Happily, Feltsman was able, in the crystalline clarity of his fingerwork and the maturity of his conception, to overcome all that. His first movement bubbled along most amiably, with its cascading scales flowing easily through the texture, never sounding rushed or determinedly flashy. Its frequent stops and starts and rhythmic changeups weren’t exploited for extra drama; they were simply played, and so masterfully that the wit of Haydn’s conception could clearly be heard.
The slow movement was poetic and beautiful, with Feltsman making the interior pulses bloom with life amid a gentle, quiet landscape of clear lines and intense, if inward, emotion. A light, impish, rather fast finale followed, and Feltsman was able to demonstrate again the sureness of his technique.
An early Schubert sonata, No. 4 in A minor (D. 537), came next. Control was predominant here, too, as Feltsman made the opening gesture, which would be light and firm on a Viennese piano of his time but sounds like mud on a modern grand, work excellently, chiefly because of his expert use of legato. That served him well in the rest of the movement, allowing him to make much out of the Schubert’s noble, darkly colored writing.
For the second movement, Feltsman’s touch was ideally light, letting Schubert’s melodies ring out over what, again, would be unthinkably clunky accompaniments on today’s instruments; here, the ungainliness of the writing in the was all but unnoticeable. For the last movement, Feltsman gave much of his attention to the F-natural at the top of the initial run, implanting that note in the memory for its several returns, and moving the music along at a brisk and busy pace.
In the second half of the recital, the pianist showed that he is a terrific exponent of the music of Franz Liszt, even if his fireworks are of a more substantial nature than they might otherwise be. The Second Ballade (in B minor, S. 171) is, like so much Liszt, a grab-bag of ideas rather than a thoroughly worked-out narrative, but it’s great fun to listen to (in remarks to the audience, the pianist said Liszt based it on the mythical story of Hero and Leander). Feltsman’s technique was essentially faultless throughout all the most extravagant moments of the piece. There was no sense that the pianist had struggled to make it that clean, or was working particularly hard to make it work at the moment.
So you had a Liszt Ballade that opened with a tempest that rolled along without overwhelming anything, and a bombastic finale that sounded heroic rather than vulgar. Feltsman contrasted this with a marvelously tender playing of the major-key “answer” to the rumbling opening, opening up the whole coming byplay of the rest of the score. One could clearly hear Liszt’s debt to Chopin in the work, and Feltsman made it speak eloquently; he has the right mix of talents and interpretive insight for Liszt, and doesn’t let the showiness obliterate the substance. At the same time, he can get the dazzle across, but it’s a controlled dazzle, in which the pianist is trying to get across its musical role rather than just simply making noise.
His second Liszt piece, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (S. 173, No. 3) was an exercise in sensitive mood, with a placid, serene touch in the first section — with a wondrously light passage of descending fourths in the middle — and carefully managed thunderous outbursts of the main theme. The contrasting Andante section was exquisite, with bouquets of new, fresh color brought to the music, changing it utterly and shoring up its depth. At the very end, the return of that descending figure provided a moment of the finest possible nostalgia.
Feltsman had been scheduled to play the Fourth Sonata of Scriabin as the closer but substituted the same composer’s Vers la Flamme (Op. 72), a quivering, ecstatic one-movement “Poeme” replete with augmented-fourth chords in profusion and continual tremolos that builds slowly to a climax egged on by a two-note hammerblow motif that cuts through the seething mass of sound around it. It was said at the time of both composers that Scriabin played his own music suggestively, while his schoolmate Rachmaninov played Scriabin with both feet on the ground, and Feltsman’s performance fit into the Rachmaninov camp.
The jabbing two-note figure nagged indelibly as the work progressed, and Feltsman carved out an unambiguous narrative for the piece, despite that its language offered no real conclusion. It was, indeed, much like Liszt, and for his encore, Feltsman returned to that composer, performing what is surely his best-known solo piece, the Liebestraum No. 3.
It was poetry personified, for a half-full house that adored it. Would that many more people had been there to hear what was in every respect a first-class recital by a major pianist.