[I was in contact with Vladimir Feltsman before he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. When Amazon asked me to do some interviews with musicians for the start-up of the classical music section, he was one of the first people I thought of, and he gave me a lively interview including a startling admission about his satisfaction with his own recordings.]

Vladimir Feltsman was swept into the international concert scene on a wave of post-refusenik publicity in 1987. His career suppressed for almost a decade, Feltsman was finally permitted to leave the Soviet Union and came to the United States. He played a wide repertory, even–at his first performance in the U.S., a White House concert–Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. When he signed to record with CBS (now Sony Classical) in 1987, the label apparently thought Russian pianist = Russian music. Aside from his Carnegie Hall live debut, CBS had him recording blockbusters like Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev Concertos.

Eventually, Feltsman settled into the career he wanted: a moderate concert schedule, still including appearances with major orchestras but not too many, and building his teaching work at the State University of New York at New Paltz. But when Sony cancelled a planned recording of Bach Concertos, Feltsman let his contract drop. When the MusicMasters label offered him a recording contract on his own terms, Feltsman had Bach on his mind.

“There is nothing else,” he says. “There is no substitute for Bach. His music is the highest achievement in the realm of sound in Western culture. If somebody devotes his life to music and skips Bach, I don’t understand why he bothers.”

Feltsman began recording when he was nineteen, cutting and splicing his own tapes. (His debut recording of Schumann and Brahms is on Russian Disc RD CD 11 001.) But he enjoys recording much more now. “There is no tension. It’s quite an enjoyable experience, because I know what has to be done and I do it. I work with Max Wilcox, possibly the top guy in piano recordings alive today. He uses the same microphones which he used for recording Artur Rubinstein.

“The way Wilcox records the piano is not super-duper hi tech, although it’s digital, and the sound is very natural. Many recordings today make the piano sound like a synthesizer, with the microphone inside the guts of the piano, or so much reverberation you think you are swimming.”

Before his Russian career was abruptly terminated in 1979 by the government, Feltsman had been an active recording artist. But he had recorded no Bach, only Russian works and music of the Romantic era. “I play many composers in concerts, because I am a professional musician and I make a living playing the piano. When I am asked to do Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto I do it because they pay my fee. But concertizing to pay your bills is one thing, and making a recording that stands is something else.” He will still record other music, and he feels composers like Chopin and Schumann are beautiful, worth playing and recording. “But in my view there is a certain hierarchical structure, and Bach is in a class of his own.”

Feltsman is satisfied with his most recent recordings, a set of Bach’s The Art of Fugue (MusicMasters 01612-67173-2) and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and Op. 101 Sonatas (01612-67107-2). But he has no plans about further recordings, except that he knows he will make some.

“Somehow things come and I deal with them,” he says. “I may record entirely different music, things I haven’t touched for many years. I will possibly do more Beethoven Sonatas.” He has now recorded the last five Sonatas, Opp. 109-111 on 01612-67098-2. Asked why he is recording Beethoven in backwards order, he replied, “The last Sonatas are the closest to my heart and I wanted to record them. They now want me to do the cycle, but I am not sure there is a need for another Beethoven cycle since there are quite a few good ones. Perhaps I will do some Variations instead, especially the `Diabelli’ Variations.

“It’s quite wonderful, having this lucky relationship with MusicMasters that I can do anything I want any time I want. You don’t feel the pressure. At this point in my life I feel I don’t have to do something just to be making one more recording. I’ve already perhaps recorded more than I should.”

Feltsman is content with most of his Bach recordings, which also include the “Goldberg” Variations, recorded live during a return visit to Russia (01612-67093-2) and the complete Well-Tempered Clavier (01612-67105-2 and -67162-2). Ironically, the one recording he wasn’t satisfied with was the one he gave up his Sony contract to make: the Keyboard Concertos (01612-67132-2 and -67143-2). “I don’t like the way they sound and I don’t like the way I played. The weather was too hot and it wasn’t my usual piano. In these concertos you can hear Feltsman playing them. My personality is very much in these recordings and that irritates me.”

Leslie Gerber

2 Responses to “Vladimir Feltsman interview”

  1. Brenda Stern Says:

    Did Vladamir Feltsman play a concert at the Chautauqua Institution in August 1987?

  2. Leslie Gerber Says:

    It’s possible, but it’s not information I ever had. By now I doubt if Feltsman would remember. But Chautauqua undoubtedly has records of its performances.

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