Vladimir Feltsman, the Russian-émigré, made
a sensational début some twenty-two years ago at Carnegie
Hall with the works of Beethoven, Messiaen, Schubert and Schumann.
Equipped with a vast repertory, Mr. Feltsman’s discography
encompasses the music of Baroque masters to the lesser-known
20th century composers with the likes of Alexander
Knayfel and Valentin Silvestrov.
Of all composers, Mr. Feltsman has expressed
a lifelong devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
He has become known as a Bach interpreter of the highest order.
His commitment witnessed a cycle of highly acclaimed concerts
in the 1990s, which included Bach’s major keyboard works.
This spanned four consecutive seasons (1992-1996) at the Tisch
Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The present
of the complete books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC)
was originally released on the now-defunct MusicMasters
label. Mr. Feltsman’s Bach performances are both scholarly
and revealing. He has an irrefutably keen sense of rhythmic
control and achieves this whilst maintaining the most careful
shadings of contrapuntal voicing and crisp execution. The
result is a collection of refined interpretations that is
in a class of its own.
Only a handful of pianists nowadays have the
courage to programme these works, let alone the courage to
record them, as Mr. Feltsman has. Bach’s Well-Tempered
Clavier is both “a massive theoretical exercise and a
deeply compelling work of art,” as Tim Page explains in his
liner notes. Has any composition in the history of Western
Music made a greater impression on succeeding generations
of composers and performers than the “48”, as the two
books of 24 Preludes and Fugues have come to be known? Disguised
as ‘study pieces’ for Bach’s wife and children initially,
the WTC broke traditional ground by revealing that
the 18th century tonal system could be expanded
with unforeseen qualities, all in a handful of 24 keys. Each
piece in the WTC pushed newer limits on the piano as
a keyboard instrument of expression. It is the duty for the
pianist to unmask these qualities.
Feltsman lays bare a sense of serene exploration
with the first Prelude in C Major. He reveals
the happy communion of black keys in the third Prelude
in C Sharp Major of Book I, the improvisatory nature of
the tenth Fugue in E Minor and the tragedy inherent
in the twenty-second Fugue in B Flat Minor of Book
II. Throughout he lavishes great care on maintaining
a balance between compression and expansion, unity and diversity,
density and clarity. At times I found it difficult to tell
whether what I was hearing was a piano or a harpsichord. Listen
for instance to the twentieth Fugue in A Minor of Book
II. I bet Wanda Landowska would have thoroughly welcomed this
approach and effect. Four hours of continuous listening to
the entire Bach WTC felt like a slideshow of a lifetime.
I recall attending a recital in Colorado several years ago
when Mr. Feltsman performed the WTC Book I. At the
end of the recital, I wondered if he would be able to stand-up
and walk-off the stage after two hours of such spiritual catharsis.
I had a very similar experience after hearing these performances
Mr. Feltsman’s magical account of the sixteenth
Prelude in G Minor of Book I, which starts with a trill
is so persuasive in its power to unfold one narrative passage
after another. This Prelude in G Minor suggests to
me Bach’s musical depiction of the life-cycle of a butterfly
from cocoon to hovering maturity. Likewise impressive is the
astonishing power of the three ascending chords in the twenty-second
Fugue in B Flat Minor of Book II. Feltsman’s playing
and phrase structure has a trademark I would describe as “agogic
expressionism.” At every turn he maintains an intimate link
with the secular spirit of the music and this is done humbly
and without sounding artificial.
This is a welcome addition to the Well-Tempered
Clavier discography. I am however dumbfounded by the set’s
cover image. Are these metal screws? Telephone cords? What
possible association does this have with Bach or the WTC?
That said my admiration for Mr. Feltsman’s artistic performance
is undimmed by this enigma.
the fine balance of the original DDD source recording, where
the microphone was placed close to the piano without being
intrusive. Original notes from Tim Page add to the value of
this re-release. They equal in excellence those he has written
for various Glenn Gould discs.
On this evidence classical collectors should
be keeping a watchful eye on subsequent releases from Nimbus.