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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Bach: Goldberg Variations, Vladimir Feltsman, piano. Aspen Music Festival, Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado, August 16, 2003 (HS)

It was clear from the almost stop-and-start rubato of the opening aria that pianist Vladimir Feltsman was not going to take a familiar route with his performance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations Saturday night, the final concert in the intimate 600-seat Harris Hall at the 2003 Aspen Music Festival. Feltsman willfully imposed his own viewpoint on the music, so much so that some might say he overwhelmed Bach. But it was never boring.

Unlike most pianists, Feltsman elects to do all the repeats, which stretched the performance time to 1 hour 20 minutes, about one-third longer than most pianists take. One result is that this provides extra opportunities to create even more variations than Bach may have envisioned. Beginning with the aria and continuing with each of the 30 variations and the final return of the aria, he always changed gears on the repeats. He added extra ornamentation, either piling on more ornaments, changing registers as if he were playing a giant, hammered harpsichord instead of a modern piano, often manipulating the tempo. Sometimes his ornamentation was so elaborate it seemed to create a whole new variation within a variation.

In the 29th variation, for example, with its whirlwind 16th notes (or 32nds, depending on the edition), Feltsman was ornamenting the melody so feverishly that his additions to the melodic line were harmonizing with Bach's existing whirlwind. The effect was startling and dramatic. In a slow, quiet variation that preceded it, the combination of these extra ornaments and rubato produced an effect almost like jazz, which was mesmerizing.

On the hand, the final variation, which always struck me as the ultimate destination of the piece and a chorale of extraordinary nobility, Feltsman pulled on the tempo like taffy, robbing the music of its grandeur. That's the price of a Feltsman performance. It might be as maddening as it is astonishing.

Feltsman's playing is muscular and he can draw an impressive range of sounds from the piano. It's almost as if he can shift registers and colors at will. He can be highly rhythmic, when he isn't manipulating the tempo excessively. The fast variations were dazzling as he employed eye-popping technique to create extra layers of sound. It was in the slow variations that he sometimes lost me, basically playing some of them ad libitum rather than employing a tasteful rubato.

Still, the overall effect was simply overwhelming. I'm not sure I want to hear the Goldberg Variations played like this very often, but it sure was a heck of a ride.

Harvey Steiman



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