AMICI’S RUSSIAN PICTURES by Stanley Fefferman

March 3, 2007
Amici presents
RUSSIAN PICTURES
Glenn Gould Studio,Toronto

Vladimir Feltsman, pianist extraordinaire, inclines to drama. He introduced the music of the late Galina Ustwolskaja as “the darkest universe in 20th century music.” His playing with the Amici ensemble brought her music as if out of a dark hole into the concert hall. During the third movement of Ustwolkskaja’s “Trio”, Feltsman played scales like a madwoman in a small room pacing the floor from the window to the door.

Joaquin Valdepenas contributed to the complex rhythmic structure simple, lyrical clarinet lines extenuated to unearthly breathlessness. Jonathan Crow created accordion-like harmonic textures with his violin, at times sounding like a mother keening over the body of her baby as it passes out of this world of suffering , her mind floating tethered by a filament above the remote edge of sanity.

Feltsman’s piano dominated the closing moments of “Trio”. He struck with deliberate intent chords tolling like big bells, chords falling like rocks onto a highway, chords falling like blows of a riot cop’s club, like the prison door whose closing tone edges into silence.

The “Six Duets” by Rheinhold Glière, performed with precision and zest by Jonathan Crow and David Hetherington, offered a welcome glimpse into what the Soviet mind considered ‘normalcy’. As Rick Phillips says in the programme notes, Glière’s “ music fit the Soviet ideals so well that it was piped over loudspeakers at subway and train stations.”

Each of the six seemed more beautiful than the one before. Here is old world charm: elegant counterpoint, pleasing melody, folksy Russian warmth, complex but clear harmonies with touches of modern dissonance. In the “Cradle Song”, the duo of violin and cello reached a level of synchronized gentleness worthy of great respect. Amici’s tones were exquisitely clear, but rounded, without a trace of harsh or shrill. Throughout, their control of dynamics and tempo was outstanding. If the CBC’s recording of this performance were to be piped into the TTC trains, that would truly be a better way.

The first movement of Harry Freedman’s “Lines for clarinet solo in three movements” has an ostinato two-toned motive that goes “tip/toe”, “tip/toe”, then runs legato like a long-legged mouse up the drapery. In the second movement, Valdepenas blows dreamy, syrupy, slow, hollow tones. His control is such that the notes and runs are shaped vividly without edge or seam. The third movement is Poulenc-ish, puckish and comic, as if a dialogue of two querulous friends of widely different ages. A fine piece of music given virtuoso treatment.

Vladimir Feltsman closed the concert and brought down the house with his totally committed performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s
“Pictures at an Exhibition” in its original version for piano solo. Feltsman’s attack was an attack. His bottom had barely touched the seat when his hands struck the keyboard. His performance was a drama in black and white: as in great photography, we are astonished by the clarity of white, the depth of black, and from these dramatic extremes arise the 256 subtle pleasures of the grey scale.

As an artist, Feltsman exposes himself, naked and twitching in every nerve, locked on to the target–the music in his mind. It is as if the music comes out of him and forces its way into you. I have enjoyed Valèry Gergiev live conducting a performance of the popular transcription this piece by Ravel, but the entire Kirov Orchestra could not muster the force aroused by this solo pianist.

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