Saturday 11 May 2013

Vladimir Feltsman, on Nimbus, provides one of the finest performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition currently on disc

The story of how Mussorgsky came to write his Pictures at an Exhibition is well known. It was following the death of his artist and architect friend Viktor Hartmann in 1873, when an exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, organised with the help of the influential critic, Vladimir Stasov, was viewed by Mussorgsky. It inspired the composer to write a piano work based on his viewing of the exhibition.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition have, of course, been recorded many times both in their original piano version as well as in the orchestral versions by such figures as Ravel and Stokowski.

Nimbus Alliance have just released a recording of Vladimir Feltsman playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. Despite the number of previous recordings of the Mussorgsky this recording should not be missed.

NI 6211

Vladimir Feltsman was born in Moscow in 1952. He debuted with the Moscow Philharmonic at age 11 and in 1969, entered the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory of Music to study piano under the guidance of Professor Jacob Flier. He also studied conducting at both the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories. In 1971Feltsman won the Grand Prix at the Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris leading to extensive touring throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe and Japan. In 1979, because of his growing discontent with the restrictions on artistic freedom under the Soviet regime, Feltsman signalled his intention to emigrate by applying for an exit visa. In response, he was immediately banned from performing in public and his recordings were suppressed. After eight years of virtual artistic exile, in 1987 he was finally granted permission to leave the Soviet Union for the United States.
Vladimir Feltsman performed his first recital in North America at the White House and, the same year, his debut at Carnegie Hall established him as a major pianist on the American and international scene. Feltsman holds the Distinguished Chair of Professor of Piano 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 the founder and Artistic Director of the International Festival-Institute PianoSummer at New Paltz.

In addition to an extensive discography released on the Melodiya, Sony Classical, and Musical Heritage Society labels he has issued a number of recordings for Nimbus, in particular highly acclaimed recordings featuring the music of Tchaikovsky and Scriabin as well as recordings of Chopin’s Ballades, Waltzes and Impromptus.

There is a pretty forthright opening Promenade to begin Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1878), a real allegro giusto which is so often lacking in other performances, clearly showing that Vladimir Feltsman is not going to give anything like a middle of the road performance.

In Gnomus, the way that Felstsman characterises the music, depicting the frightening nature of the subject, is terrific. There is some stupendous playing here with some beautifully strong left hand trills. Feltsman correctly takes a more leisurely return to Promenade observing the marking Moderato comodo assai con delicatezza.  Il vecchio castello has a strong Mediterranean lilt with Feltsman creating a feeling of wonder in viewing this scene with the troubadour singing outside the castle. This pianist creates a rarely achieved intense atmosphere.

Returning to Promenade, Feltsman again adjusts his tempo to follow the marking Moderato non tanto, pesante, though in a quite forceful manner. Tuileries: Dispute d’enfants après jeux has such delicacy and lightness of touch with fleeting feelings. Bydlo again shows Feltsman’s strong left hand with the theme played in the right hand conjuring up such a formidable view of a heavy Polish cart pulled by oxen. With Promenade, Feltsman plays a thoughtful tranquillo leading mysteriously into the brilliant Ballet of the unhatched chicks with some wonderfully skittish playing, quite spontaneous in manner with such a lightness of touch.

Samuel Goldenberg and Scmuyle receives some very direct playing in the striking opening with a heavily characterised impression of these two opposite Jewish characters, one rich, the other poor. Feltsman takes note of every nuance and dynamic to create a vivid impression. With Promenade the tempo returns to the opening Allegro giusto before some wonderful playing in Limoges, le marché (The Market Place at Limoges), a real allegretto vivo but never losing sight of little details. This is fine playing with such control of dynamics and, as the section progresses, Feltsman is stunning.

The Catacombae. Sepulcrum Romanum suddenly throws us into gloomy chords, low on the keyboard, with sudden outbursts that make one start and Cum mortuis in lingua morta is ghostly in its atmosphere as conjured up by Feltsman. The promenade theme lurks in the background but the right hand trills add a haunting feel. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Baba Yaga brings more superb playing from Feltsman with a sense of authority and command. Yet when the central section appears there is sensitivity in the intricate writing. The tension is built before strong chords return us to the manic, evil witch in playing that is formidable. The Great Gate of Kiev opens with firm, stately theme, growing imperceptibly stronger. The quiet section that follows makes a beautiful contrast before the music suddenly breaks out in bell like sounds becoming increasingly thunderous with tremendous chords providing a really virtuoso ending to this piece.

This surely must be one of the finest performances of this work currently on disc.

Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young Op.39 (1878) makes an excellent coupling on this disc especially as played by Vladimir Feltsman. There are many lovely touches in this performance, at times beautifully restrained with attention to every nuance such as in the opening A Winter Morning and The New Doll. The Mazurka has lovely rhythms played with panache and the Old French Song receives a lovely performance to which Feltsman brings something special. Sweet Reverie, in Feltsman’s hands, becomes a much more substantial piece.

It is wonderful to hear just what a pianist of Feltsman’s calibre can bring to these little pieces.

To end, Feltsman plays Tchaikovsky’s Echo Rustique Op. 72, No.13, in a lovely performance, making a fine end to this terrific disc.

These performances, from 2002, are nicely recorded with excellent booklet notes by Vladimir Feltsman.

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