Haydn: Keyboard Sonatas / Vladimir Feltsman

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Vladimir Feltsman has a long-established reputation as a major artist. His 1987 arrival in the United States (after a seven-year shutdown of his career by Soviet authorities) was greeted with loud huzzahs. His first American recital took place at the White House, and his ensuing Carnegie Hall debut was recorded in its entirety. His repertoire covers everything from Bach through the 20th century. Recording first for Melodiya, then for Sony, then Camerata, he has now made a great many recordings for Nimbus since 2008.

These seem to be Feltsman’s first recordings of Haydn; his readings are very personal, as if he were trying to be different from every other performance or recording. There are many unmarked and unexpected tempo changes, some amounting to Luftpausen more appropriate to mid-19th-century music. Such playing can be either invigorating in its freshness or cloying in its fussiness; it would no doubt upset period practice purists. As a long-time lover of conductor Willem Mengelberg’s erratic ways, I would expect to be open to Feltsman’s performances, but I can be invigorated and exasperated by the same passage on succeeding days. I am bothered by Feltsman’s wildly inconsistent playing of the C-Minor Sonata, but maybe that’s just me: I have never been satisfied with any performance and am not even sure what I want from this often recorded piece. The only pianist to come close is Youri Egorov, yet I cannot cite anything special in his recording; he just plays it straight, offering no special insight.

I listen again as I write this, and I continue to be disturbed by the dichotomy: Such magnificent pianism takes the breath away, yet such inappropriate music-making almost loses Haydn. Then comes the opening Presto of the E-Minor Sonata: Feltsman understands well that the vibrancy of a Presto is never based on speed alone. Every mark in the score is faithfully observed, the clarity and sheer life of the playing are inimitable; there is only one slight slowdown at an internal cadence, and a thrilling virtuoso flourish—lasting less than a second—is tossed into the second repeat. I could keep, and recommend, this two-CD set for this one track. But the following Adagio is filled with bluster and virtuoso posturing (in his program notes, Feltsman calls it “elaborate ornamentation in the manner of C.P.E. Bach.”), and the final Vivace molto wanders fitfully, searching in vain for its true character. So it goes throughout both discs. Listening again to the C-Minor Sonata, Feltsman produces a lovely, yearning character in the opening measures, but after a minute or so his odd phrasings, unexpected pauses, and sudden violent attacks spoil the mood.

The opening Andante con espressione of the C-Major Sonata is fascinating here. Feltsman’s left hand is leonine, like nothing since Cliburn. But a cutesy twist of the three chords in measure nine breaks the spell before it has a chance settle in. In the Presto , there is an awkward moment during the repeat of measure 17 (at 0:37) that sounds like a too-tight edit, cutting a fraction of a second from the music. Nimbus’s trademark reverberance is too much for this tempo, blurring what seems to be pristine pianism. The Eb Variations are gentle, subtle music, and Feltsman has a strong feeling for them. There is not a single virtuoso excess in its 17 minutes.

It’s clear that Feltsman can do anything he wants at the keyboard, and do it better than almost anyone else. One constantly receives the impression that one is listening to a dominant artist. But his style of playing generally does not suit Haydn—Sviatoslav Richter could get away with it because he was so sensitive to every type of music. It works on and off for Feltsman. I equate his playing with Nimbus’s recorded sound: both are brilliant but overdone, too glittering, too shiny. Has any piano ever sounded this bright, with a tiny halo around every note? The results are not for me, but that doesn’t mean they may not be for you. What I do recommend is that every piano lover hear these performances.

Postscript : The package is a single-CD-sized jewel case, but the swinging inner tray fell out every time I opened it. It’s long past time to abandon the fragile jewel case.

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NI6242

  • UPC: 710357624223

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

  • Performer: Vladimir Feltsman