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]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
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.
It is no insult to Feltsman’s playing to praise his pauses