Recently I’ve been listening to two Russian classical pianists from very different eras. Vladimir Feltsman is still in his prime. Vladimir de Pachmann was one of the earliest pianists to make records. I love them both.
I was involved in the Vladimir Feltsman story in a small way. After he applied for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union with his wife and son in 1979, he immediately became a “nonperson.” Not only was the application refused, but his career was shut down. He had already toured outside the Soviet bloc, but foreign booking agents were told he was not available for touring. He was forbidden to perform anywhere for two years, after which he was gradually given demeaning assignments like playing a recital in a kindergarten classroom on an upright piano at 10 a.m. His Russian LPs were suppressed and recordings of his concerts disappeared from the Soviet radio archives.
Various Western musicians took up Feltsman’s cause, without immediate results. Daniel Barenboim organized a tribute to Feltsman at Carnegie Hall, at which he and several other famous pianists performed. For the last number on the program, the spotlight was shone on the vacant piano while one of Feltsman’s recordings played.
As a fortunate byproduct of my work as a classical record dealer, I found two of Feltsman’s suppressed recordings in 1984: one original Soviet LP, the other a reissue on a Spanish cassette. (I have since obtained all of them.) At the time I was doing regular classical music broadcasts over WDST in Woodstock. I told Jerry and Sasha Gillman, owners of the station, that I had these suppressed recordings and wanted to do a special. Jerry suggested we attempt to get an interview with Feltsman. I expressed skepticism, but I should have known Jerry better. He called our local representative, Matt McHugh, who in turn got in touch with the State Department. Eventually we heard from the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who turned out to be friendly with Feltsman. Sure enough, we got our interview, recorded off the phone from his apartment in Moscow. The resulting program went out on our station, then WQXR-FM in New York and a little later over the Voice of America.
The president of the closest major educational institution, Alice Chandler of the State University of New York at New Paltz, heard about the broadcast. The following month, she and a group of American university professors traveled to Russia to visit with “refuseniks,” people who had been refused permission to leave the U.S.S.R. Chandler met Feltsman at his apartment, and told him if he could ever leave she would offer him a job at her school. He joked with her that if she could get him a false passport he would go immediately.
He was finally allowed to leave in 1987, due to continuing intervention from our State Department and specifically the Secretary of State George Schultz. Feltsman eventually learned that he and several other refuseniks had been released in exchange for some concession by the U.S., but he never found out what that was.
I was among a group of people who met the Feltsmans when the arrived in the U.S. I remember vividly his four-year-old son Daniel running into the press room at Kennedy Airport bouncing a helium balloon on a string and yelling “Mickey! Mickey!” (It was Mickey Mouse.) I didn’t get to hear Feltsman’s first performance in the U.S., at the White House. (I did eventually get a tape of it for broadcast on WDST, the only U.S. outlet that got to run it.) I did hear his official debut at Carnegie Hall, which confirmed what the recordings had suggested: he was a major pianist, with a wide range of abilities and the versatility to play almost anything convincingly. I was particularly impressed with the way he played excerpts from Messiaen’s “20 Views of the Infant Jesus,” with such color and conviction that the audience was transported.
Over the intervening quarter of a century, I have heard Feltsman numerous times, occasionally in New York, more often at the college. Last weekend, as part of the inauguration ceremonies for the college’s new president, and to celebrate his 25th year there, Feltsman played a brief benefit recital at the college. Perhaps by accident, more likely on purpose, Feltsman invited comparisons with the great Sviatoslav Richter, whom he heard in concert many times. He played Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” one of Richter’s most famous triumphs. The two other works on the short program, by Schubert and Liszt, were pieces also included in Richter’s most famous recording of “Pictures” (from 1958 Sofia concerts).
I’ve always admired Feltsman’s playing. As a Bach player, he is simply unequalled among those I’ve heard. One of the many fine features of his Bach is his ability to add embellishments to repeated sections of the music, a necessity in Bach’s day but a rarity in ours. Little improvisations like that were expected in performances up through the time of Mozart and even beyond. We know that Chopin often varied his music when he played it. The few grace notes that Feltsman added to his Schubert Impromptu were nothing radical, but they showed the way he thinks about music–creatively.
Feltsman has never been a “black and white” pianist, as his very colorful Messiane playing demonstrated at my first hearing of him. But after hearing his Liszt and Mussorgsky, I feel he has widened his color pallette over the years. The shading in these works was actually reminiscent of Richter.
Creative interpretation was also a part of the style of Vladimir de Pachmann, who was born in 1848 and began making records in 1907. Pachmann has been one of my favorite pianists since I first heard him, more than 50 years ago, in an LP anthology of great Chopin players of the past.
It’s difficult to listen to Pachmann today. Most of the recordings are acoustical (done through a horn, before microphones came into use). They have limited frequency range and, usually, heavy amounts of surface noise. But that’s never stopped me from marveling at Pachmann’s performances, free in a way that would not be acceptable in today’s concert halls but always convincing and expressive. If I had to use one recording to exemplify eloquence and poetry in classical performance, it would probably be Pachmann’s playing of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1. Despite the late opus number this is actually early Chopin, published posthumously, and it may not be exactly Chopin’s greatest music. But it’s the best sounding of Pachmann’s recordings, and one of the few among his last discs that shows the pianist completely in control.
You can hear that recording for free on the Internet. But if the idea of hearing romantic piano music (mostly Chopin, but also Liszt, Mendelssohn and others) played by a survivor of the romantic era appeals to you, there is a unique opportunity available now. The Marston label has issued a four-CD set of the complete surviving recordings of Pachmann, including quite a few that were never published on 78s. For years I have been dreaming of owning such a set, and now that it’s available, it has been done the way I wanted to hear it. That Chopin Nocturne, for example, should have been heard in clear, fairly wide-ranging sound. It was published on RCA Victor’s best shellac material (the so-called “Z” pressings). But all the previous reissues of it I have heard were sonically dull, filtered to remove surface noise. Marston’s edition is what I’ve always wanted. And for the asking price, it strikes me as a real bargain.