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Piano Lessons: Reflections from a Life in Music by Vladimir Feltsman [Paperback Book]

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Vladimir Feltsman presents insights drawn from a lifetime of devotion to music: as a student, a teacher, a performer, and a recording artist. Beginning with his early days studying the piano in the Special School for Music in Moscow, he writes compellingly about his experience of becoming a professional musician and passing along what he learned to the next generation. Along the way, he sheds fascinating light on what it was like to pursue his vocation in the former Soviet Union, including eight years of artistic exile after he was refused permission to emigrate. In addition to these personal reflections, the book reproduces the highly informative "liner notes" Feltsman has provided for many of the recordings in his extensive discography, ranging from Bach's Goldberg Variations to the 20th century compositions of Soviet Russia's "forgotten" composers. A final inclusion is the text that Feltsman, a renowned Bach specialist, wrote to accompany a performing edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier, offering both an expansive overview and detailed analysis of each of the preludes and fugues.

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Piano Lessons: Reflections from a Life in Music by Vladimir Feltsman [Paperback Book]

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In this memoir augmented by notes written for recital programmes and CD booklets, the Moscow-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman (b 1952) implicitly raises the question of whether pianists who suffer under dictatorships ever fully recover from the experience. In 1979, Feltsman, who had enjoyed an ample career, asked to leave the Soviet Union to expand his artistic horizons. As a result, he was banned from performance for two years, followed by paltry provincial engagements. He would confess to the A'eii' York Times in August 1987 that he suffered from 'nerves and fits of depression,' but valiantly used his free time to learn new repertoire. After being allowed to move to the United States in 1987, Feltsman explored interpretive interests, playing robust-style Bach with inexorability and confrontational forth lightness as if evoking the combative side of the composer, who once brawled in the street with a bassoonist. Feltsman's architectonic sensibility - of pianist as cathedral builder - is heard in Bach's French Suites (Nimbus 63J4) and Partitas (Urtext 054/5), displaying a sense of restraint and inner reserve. Yet occasional aggressiveness and acerbity can also be heard. Feltsman sums up his tragic experiences in the USSR as a 'B movie of a certain type, with diplomats, RGB agents in plain clothes and sunglasses, persecuted artists, dissidents, punctured tyres, a vandalised piano and other paraphernalia that fit the genre'.

Feltsman studied with Kvgeny Timakin and Yakov Flier, both pupils at the Moscow Conservatory of Konstantin Igumnov, who traced his own pianistic heritage back to Beethoven through Liszt and Czerny. He concludes: 'A good [piano] teacher is very much like a gardener who tends his fields and removes dead wood, mud and rocks that prevent water from feeding the field freely. About keyboard influences, Feltsman observes, as others have done before him, that the recordings of Emil Gilels do not capture his keyboard tone in live performance. He also asserts, without explanation, that Sviatoslav Richter's recordings 'sound better than his live concerts - indeed, there are mysteries that will remain mysteries'.

Aesthetically, Liszt's major compositions are lauded as 'of the finest quality... that is not inferior to the work of his contemporaries Chopin and Schumann'. Feltsman notes that the Swiss pianist Ernest Levy is one of the musicians he "most admire[s]," whose recordings of Beethoven and Liszt are 'simply phenomenal,' without justification for the superlatives.

There are also intriguing, all-too-brief descriptions of lessons with the Romanian-born composer and music theorist Philip Hersehkowitz. a pupil of Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Hersehkowitz dissected the opening eight bars of Beethoven's Sonata No 1 in F minor by referring to 'hard and soft musical material" and 'different temperatures in music, hot and cold'. Clearly impressed by Hersehkowitz, Feltsman relates that his mentor believed that 'there was just one composer whose name was variously Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg. Berg and Webern.  Feltsman's remarkable trajectory of travails and achievements in his life and career presented here, even his experience with Soviet tyranny. International Piano Magazine

“When Vladimir Feltsman first appeared in the West as an escapee from the Soviet musical pressure-cooker, his significance seemed political and ‘Russian.’ But Feltsman’s most treasurable keyboard performances, for me, are of Bach and Schubert, not Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev. In this
collection, he cherishes his Russian training and cultural inheritance. But he has put behind him the turbulent personal odyssey that transplanted him to a New World very different from what he left behind. ‘Freedom,’ he writes, ‘is an expression of discipline’–– not ‘making voluntary choices and
picking what you like’ but ‘freedom from having to make a choice.’ The lucidity he has attained suffuses these inquisitive writings.’”

— Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America, Conversations with Arrau, Artists in Exile, and many other books

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