Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 23 [9:53]
Ballade No 2 in F, Op 38 [7:37]
Ballade No 3 in A-flat, Op 47 [8:03]
Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op 52 [11:37]
Fantasie in F minor, Op 49 [13:02]
Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat, Op 61 [14:00]
rec. 8-9 June 2008, Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College,
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, USA NIMBUS
NI 6128 [64:07]
I recall a statement which has been attributed to many pianists
and teachers: anyone can play the notes, but only the best performers
know how to play the pauses between the notes. Or, in Artur
Schnabel’s words, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists.
But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art
resides!” Vladimir Feltsman is a master of the pauses. The lead-in
to the first Ballade’s main theme is an immediate example of
this gift: Feltsman waits long enough to excite my anticipation,
but not long enough to interrupt the flow. In the second Ballade,
when the opening theme returns after the first “storm,” a few
notes are missing from the melody and Feltsman underlines this.
Out of a perfectly timed quiet, the second theme of Ballade
No 3 flows forth like spring water. The coda of the fourth Ballade
explodes out of some of the most poignant pauses on disc.
Listening to these performances, one does not take Chopin’s
genius for granted so much as marvel at how it operates. Feltsman’s
playing is not smooth enough to make this an easy ride; instead
our attention is constantly brought to Chopin’s deft writing
and the pianist’s poetic touch. I would not hesitate, then,
to call these thought-provoking performances. Feltsman’s interpretations
are his own; they are an interesting paradox, poetic readings
delivered with force.
These ballades do not have the immaculate beauty of Ivan Moravec,
or the smooth perfection of Maurizio Pollini, or the straightforward
purity of Artur Rubinstein on RCA. In comparison with Rubinstein,
Feltsman seems slightly mannered, more willing to dawdle over
notes and phrases and less so to give the tunes some shape if
it means playing too quickly. The second theme of Ballade No
3, which I mentioned earlier, begins so promisingly but loses
steam in such hesitations, although it still reaches an impressive
climax at about 6:00 and the rest of the Ballade is handled
wonderfully. The coda of Ballade No 4 left me wishing for less
obvious exertion, or nearly any other pianist’s ability to give
the final four chords equal weight. (I know the last one has
a fermata, but I prefer readings like Richter’s, in which it
is cut short, like the other three, bleakly and brutally.) On
the other hand, Feltsman introduces the same Ballade beautifully,
resisting the urge to slow the murmuring opening bars to a crawl
and even here finding rarely-heard inner voices. And before
the main tune is introduced we have another glorious pause.
There is an even better one at 3:06, better because the tempo
remains steady afterwards, as if nothing has happened. Magic!
I love these performances of the Fantasie and Polonaise-Fantasie.
The former is begun with great simplicity, the music speaking
for itself; the slow episode from 1:14 is divine. By contrast,
Feltsman plunges headlong into the more feverish passages later
on; I recall my paradoxical description of his playing as sensitive,
but with great force. In the introduction to the polonaise,
Feltsman emphasizes the mysteriousness of the music – the sense
of being lost. This is not my favorite Chopin work, actually
not even close, but I can live with it when played as probingly
as it is here.
The first thing I noticed about this disc was the quality of
the sound. It seems dated, antiquated in some way: the highest
registers are just a bit glassy and bright, the piano sounds
not quite as full as the best of today’s recordings. I wondered
if this recital, like several of Vladimir Feltsman’s other albums
now appearing on the Nimbus label, was a reissue of a recording
from the early 1990s. But no: this is a new release of recordings
from June 2008. According to the booklet, “This CD was recorded
with microphones, tube preamplifier, and A/D converter, designed
and built by Mark Fouxman.” Now, this is quite intriguing, and
I would have liked to hear more about it. Apart from any question
of whether the sound could be better, I would like to know what
inspired Mark Fouxman to build all his own recording equipment,
how he went about it, and how he came to partner with performer-producer
Vladimir Feltsman and engineer this album. The one-sentence
liner note conceals what sounds like quite an interesting story.
So these are very good new performances to have. Vladimir Feltsman
shines in the Second and Third Ballades and the Fantasie, and
even when he does not he is still quite interesting. That is
more than can be said about most pianists. His liner notes exhibit
the same intelligence and occasional idiosyncrasies which color
his pianism, and the passages on which Feltsman lavishes special
attention in performance are the same as those which he singles
out for discussion in the booklet, making it clear how sincerely
(and with how much care) he has formed his interpretations.
I prefer the authoritative directness, the definitiveness, of
Rubinstein’s ballades, the coolness of Pollini’s newest DG Ballade
No 2, or the effortless lyricism of Moravec, but there is always
room on the shelf for another good Chopin recital.
And remember what Schnabel said about the pauses between notes:
“that is where art resides!” Art is truly in residence here.
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