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Piano Lessons: Reflections from a Life in Music
by Vladimir Feltsman
Publ. 2019, 288 pp Booklocker.com
Vladimir Feltsman is a distinguished, remarkable pianist, born in Moscow in 1952. His father, Oscar, was a composer of popular songs and music comedies. Vladimir made his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic at the tender age of eleven and studied at the Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) Conservatoires. In 1971, he won the Grand Prix Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris and then toured the former Soviet Union, various European countries and Japan.
Unhappy with the official Soviet ideology and the rigid control of the arts by the government, he applied for a Soviet Union exit visa in 1979. He didn’t obtain it and instead was banned from performing in public. After struggling for eight years and living in a virtual artistic exile, he was finally granted permission to leave the country. After arriving in the United States in 1987, Feltsman quickly established himself as a major pianist, performing a wide, varied repertoire. He became a US citizen in 1995 and teaches at the Mannes School of Music, part of the New School Research University in New York, as well as at the State University of New York New Paltz. He is also the founder and artistic director of the International Festival Institute Piano Summer. He continues to perform, most notably all of Mozart’s piano sonatas on a fortepiano.
Feltsman has almost always written the liner notes for his own recordings and it is these notes that form the largest section of the present book. Piano Lessons, Reflections from a Life in Music is structured in four major parts: The first are Essays, written on various subjects, which, as Feltsman states himself in the book’s Introduction, “address several topics that are important for any practicing musician…” Part two is entitled Program Notes Music from the Motherland that he wrote for programme liners. Part three, as mentioned above, comprises the most extensive section of the book, containing many liner notes that Feltsman wrote for works he recorded. Finally, part four, named The Well-Tempered Clavier is a study of Bach’s work with the same title. It is apparently designed as part of a new performing edition yet to be published. Additionally, at the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of Feltsman’s discography and a brief section (occupying only 3.5 pages), entitled Sketches, which contain one or two sentences about a wide variety of composers (27 in total). It is very interesting and just what it says on the tin, meaning thoughts about various composers, which seemed to have suddenly occurred to Feltsman, and that he jotted down in a hurry, so not to forget them.
The structure is logical and clear, and the whole book is exceptionally well written. Feltsman has an eloquent, knowledgeable but also simple style that is easy to understand and, in my view, will appeal to musicians and laymen alike. It is a personal book and a love declaration to music. The essays are perhaps more generic and, at times, philosophical and speculative (especially the first one – Music and Related Matters) and although interesting, I didn’t always agree with his views. This meant I couldn’t really relate or identify with this section of the book. However, Part Two (programme notes) and especially Part Three (liner notes for his recordings) are a set of personal thoughts and detailed information, written by a man who is not only a dedicated musician but also a master pianist. The liner notes are split by composer and Feltsman then writes in detail about each of the works by a certain composer that he has recorded at some stage or other – from Bach to Haydn and Beethoven; Schubert and Schumann to Brahms or Tchaikovsky, naming only a few. A wealth of knowledge is contained in these notes and they make for compelling reading about many different pieces by famous composers. Most of these notes appeared to me to be aimed at non-music professionals and instead at people who love and are interested in music. However, I still thought they could prove useful to musicians, especially when they are learning to play the instrument or first start studying a piece. To me these notes provided a fascinating, engaging and entertaining insight into the mind of a pianist. Of the whole book this was my favourite part and once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. I enjoyed the reading of this section very much and, at times, I felt I was learning too for there were things I hadn’t realised or didn’t know before.
Part Four, The Well-Tempered Clavier, is also rather interesting, giving the reader an excellent idea of what Feltsman thinks of Bach and the interpretation of this particular collection of works. I’m not one of Bach’s biggest fans but this section of the book made me wish I could just sit down and listen to these pieces while glancing at what Feltsman wrote about them. I must admit that, after finishing the book, I was eager to hear some of his interpretations and rushed online to find them. I am delighted to say that his performances did not disappoint.
The book is available as paperback for £14.95 but it costs only £3.27 for the Kindle. It comprises only text therefore it will be as likeable and easy to read on the Kindle as on paperback. The choice will be whether, like me, you have no problem reading on an electronic device or whether you prefer and like to touch the paper pages.
Summarising, I took great pleasure in reading this book, in the quality of the written word and in the way Feltsman uses the language to describe music and his own personal thoughts. It is engaging to read about the various compositions, to understand them better and at times, discover details that one didn’t know. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves music and wishes to deepen their knowledge. I think it can also be a source of information about various piano pieces. Aspiring pianists or those beginning to study a particular piece, as I mentioned earlier, should find this book practical as well as pleasing. Were I to use a star-rating system, as it appears on Amazon for example, I would definitely give this book five out of five.