The consummate artistry of Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman thrilled a near-capacity crowd Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music.
Feltsman covered many of the bases, with works by Haydn, Schubert and Mussorgsky that showed off his brilliant technique, lyricism that breathed and a musicality that wasted no time on sentimentality but stayed close to the mark. Most of all, Feltsman displayed a fearless approach to everything. His statements were bold, his dynamic choices were unflinchingly dramatic, and his tempos were often electric.
He began with Haydn’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major. The three movements were interesting as they shifted from major to minor tonality with little harmonic preamble. The right hand got most of the workout with tons of fast scales, which Feltsman played flawlessly with a great, dry clarity. His trills were tight, and his pedaling was spare. He brought a vigorous energy to the outer two quick movements and gentle nuances to the slower inner one.
Schubert was experimenting with the piano sonata form, so his Sonata in A minor (1817) — his first in a series of six — had some unusual ideas. Feltsman was forceful in the opening movement, along with some hints at delicacy. The slower charming second movement was well-paced with a long melodic line supported by funny little dry chords. The finale was lyricism mixed with bravura passages and strong forward momentum. The crowd loved it and gave Feltsman two curtain calls.
The entire second half was given to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874). Originally a piano work before Ravel decided to score it for orchestra, the 12 sections are wonderfully descriptive and are a great showpiece. Feltsman is famous for recording and playing this work an estimated 200 times, he has said. It was a fabulous performance filled with color, personality and much feeling. Everything was done well, especially the superior bass line work and the wonderful weighted chords.
Because it was just him and the music, Feltsman could do more within the phrases to give them lift or color. In an orchestra, fewer of those nuances are possible because whole sections are involved. That made hearing it in this version much more entertaining. To that end: His “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” was frothy and frenetic; his Promenades each had a different quality; his “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” was fiercely brilliant; and his finale “Great Gate of Kiev” went from a worshipful slow walk to its huge orchestral end.
The crowd wanted more and after three curtain calls Feltsman obliged with one of Chopin’s lingering Nocturnes, which he played with elegance and grace.
The next concert in the series is March 17 with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.