Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Feature Article on Vladimir Feltsman

Classical Music Column for ANG Newspapers Preview Section
June 14, 2002

by Cheryl North

A dizzying display of piano pyrotechnics will explode through Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco next Wednesday and Thursday evenings when Vladimir Feltsman attacks Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 during the third program of the San Francisco Symphony's Russian Festival. Michael Tilson Thomas will preside at the podium as the orchestra performs a program entitled Russian Virtuosity, Russian Rarities.

"Had any conductor other than Michael Tilson Thomas asked me to play the Prokofiev 2nd, I would have refused and suggested another piece," Feltsman asserted during a telephone conversation from his home in upstate New York last week.

"It is wild, haunting, and tragic - the very most difficult piano concerto in the repertoire," he said in his rapid-fire Russian-accented English. "It demanding, both physiologically and psychically and it is seldom performed because it's so excruciating to play. But, Michael (Tilson Thomas) and I performed and recorded it on the Sony label with the London Symphony a few years ago. It was very successful. Besides, I like performing with Michael. He is my friend."

Feltsman then told a fascinating story about the circumstances of the piece's dedication, which was further amplified to me by Russian scholar Harlow Robinson, Prokofiev's definitive biographer.

Prokofiev met Maximilan Shmitgoff in 1909 while both were at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They became very close friends. But in April, 1913, Max shot himself. Just before doing so, he wrote Prokofiev a suicide note that begins "Dear Seryozha, I'm writing to tell you the latest news - I have shot myself."

Prokofiev was so moved by Max's death that he dedicated the prodigious Second Piano Concerto, along with three other pieces, to his memory.

Feltsman, who is recognized as one of the most imaginative and consistently interesting musicians of our time, was born in Moscow, in the former Soviet Union, in 1952. He made his concert debut with the Moscow Philharmonic at age 11, and six years later entered the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory of Music where he studied piano with Professor Jacob Flier.

Flier, he explained was a student of Konstantin Igumnov, (1873-1948) who in turn, was the teacher of the legendary Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who is considered to have been one of the 20th century's greatest keyboard artists. Feltsman's training extended to the Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatories where he studied conducting as well as piano. By 1971, he had won the Grand Prix at the Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris and, as a result, was able to visit outside the Soviet Union during concert tours through Europe and Japan.

These experiences, combined with his own longing for freedom of expression, motivated him to apply for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union in 1979. Soviet authorities immediately banned him from performing in public.

After eight years of virtual artistic exile within the Soviet Union, he was finally allowed to leave. He arrived in the United States in 1987 where he performed his U.S. debut at the White House. His Carnegie Hall debut followed within the same year.

Described by one critic as having a "moody, prickly but oddly dashing presence," Feltsman has since recorded an astonishing broad range of music, including much of J.S. Bach's keyboard repertoire; a number of Beethoven's major piano sonatas; the complete Nocturnes and Preludes of Chopin; Liszt's B Minor Sonata and other virtuosic works; Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos No. 1 and 3; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as the bone-cracking No. 2; and much more. In addition, he continues to perform as a regular guest soloist with nearly every leading orchestra in the United States, Europe and Asia.

He also continues to champion the music of Shostakovich and is planning to participate in an unprecedented survey of contemporary Russian piano music with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City in January, 2003.

One of his most recent thrills was a reunion with some of his very special old friends. Last October and November he joined conductor Pavel Kogan and the Moscow State Symphony during their U.S. tour. Then in December, 2001, he performed Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations at Carnegie Hall with famed conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra.

"It was wonderful," he said. "These were both guys that I basically grew up with. I went to school with Pavel, the son of the great Soviet violinist, Leonid Kogan, and Valerie and I both studied conducting in Leningrad with Illya Musin. Valerie was 19 and I was 20."

According to Feltsman, teaching is now an essential part of his life - and he is keenly cognizant of the value of preserving the great Russian piano tradition, with its exacting technique and what he terms its "unmatched emotional intensity." Besides teaching piano at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, he now holds the Distinguished Chair of Professor of Piano at State University of New York, New Paltz. In addition, he is the founder and artistic director of the International Festival-Institute of Piano Summer at New Paltz, a month-long training program for advanced piano students that attracts the creme de la creme of musicians from throughout the world.

At the age of 50, the fit-looking Feltsman's hair and beard are steely gray and close-cropped. He now lives alone in upstate New York and has a son attending college nearby in Connecticut. And, he still moves with almost feline energy and approaches the piano with a virility and freshness that can ignite the emotions of even the most jaded listeners.

Who better to stalk the Prokofiev Second with Michael Tilson Thomas?

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