Notes and Editorial Reviews
Vladimir Feltsman (pn)
NIMBUS 6207 (2 CDs: 120:00)
The utterly sophomoric game of ranking the great composers is something virtually all music lovers engage in. Even the haughty New York Times, care of Anthony Tommasini, succumbed to the challenge a few years ago, with a “best composers of all time” list. Almost inevitably, the top three slots are reserved for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and music geeks can spend hours in determining what that
order should be. I propose, however, that one truism is, in practical terms, indisputable; no composer gave us great music that is so mutable in terms of style and instrumentation as did Bach. I have written recently in these pages about my preference for hearing the music of the 18th century and earlier performed on instruments of their respective vintages, but Johann Sebastian Bach gets a pass.
Which brings us to this beautiful new recording. Feltsman not only plays the Six Partitas on a modern piano, he plays them in an unabashedly pianistic way. My guess is that Feltsman, who was born and educated in the Soviet Union, grew up hearing Bach played by Russian pianists in the “old-fashioned” way, as if it were Chopin. I am not aware of any other contemporary pianist who approaches the music this way; leisurely tempos, full use of the damper pedal, a bit of rubato, and a consistently singing tone. You hear something of this manner in the many Bach recordings that Richter made, but I was reminded more keenly of the Bach playing of Kempff, Lipatti, and, especially, Horszowski. What those masters brought to Bach’s secular instrumental music was a sense of the deep spirituality that is almost taken for granted in the great religious works, but also resides somewhat deeper in the structure of the music he wrote outside of the church. In this sense, Glenn Gould, most notably, presented the solo keyboard music of Bach as virtuoso show works, full of great joy, certainly, but a step away from the emotional soul of the music. Feltsman’s playing, for me, reconnects, giving us a more complete view of the composer, even if the instrument is “inauthentic.”
None of the preceding comments should imply that Feltsman’s playing is in any way mushy. In addition to being a probing artist, he is also a superb technician. His contrapuntal textures are always superbly lucid, and his tonal control is exquisite. I can imagine that listeners who came to this material via the many slick, squeaky clean recordings of the music might be unimpressed, even nonplussed by Feltsman, but I would strongly urge anyone who loves this music to keep listening. He’s onto to something here, namely, the glory of Bach.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
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