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Virtuoso returns for another ovation

Vladimir Feltsman once had a horse walk onstage while he was giving a piano recital.

"It was when I was playing somewhere in a very remote area in Russia many, many years ago, in some kind of farm environment," Feltsman said. "It was a semi-open air club, and the horse got attracted to the music. I guess it was a musical horse."

Feltsman, speaking from his home in upstate New York, was recalling some of the strange things that have happened during his brilliant career as a concert pianist, first in the former Soviet Union, then for the past 15 years in the United States. He has a recital Thursday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"In the United States, I had a dog walk onstage," he said, continuing his litany of recital oddities. "The lights went out a couple of times. Fire alarms have gone off. I'm not even talking about hearing aid batteries, which give out on almost every program. You get used to it. Sometimes it's not pleasant, but you get used to it."

The piano recital, once the staple of many a performing arts series, is an increasingly endangered species.

"The number of recitals go down, and symphony gigs go up. That's a trend everywhere," said Feltsman. If there are 40 concerts on his schedule, he added, "I would do maybe eight, 10 recitals and 30 orchestral dates."

It was, in fact, a symphony orchestra engagement that led to Feltsman's booking here. A year ago, as the soloist with the Moscow State Symphony at Ruth Eckerd Hall, he brought down the house with a sensational rendition of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

"I wasn't even thinking of doing a piano recital this season necessarily, but the response to Feltsman last year was so great _ he got a standing ovation _ that I thought it would be worth building on that by bringing him back," said Robert Freedman, president of the Clearwater hall.

Still, even with a program designed for popularity (Feltsman will play Schumann's Arabesque and Carnaval and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), the piano recital can be a tough sell. Freedman would probably consider the performance a commercial success with paid attendance of 600 in the 2,200-seat hall.

Feltsman, born in Moscow in 1952, grew up going to recitals during what now looks like the tail end of the golden age of the piano. His heroes were the great Russian pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels.

"I didn't miss any of them, dozens of concerts by those two," he said. "Russia had a very high level of musical life in the '60s and '70s. I often heard them in Bolshoi Hall at the Moscow Conservatory. It's my alma mater and has an exquisite acoustic, possibly the best in the world for piano."

Pictures at an Exhibition is a Feltsman specialty. He has a recording of it coming out on the Urtext Digital Classics label. "I learned it when I was quite young," he said. "It's in demand. I'm asked often to play it."

Ravel, of course, did a great orchestration of Mussorgsky's 10 piano pieces, Feltsman said, "but it has less to do with Mussorgsky than with Ravel. It's an exquisite orchestra piece, but I would not trade it for the original."

Feltsman, while a virtuosic practitioner of music, is not necessarily a consumer of it, at least not on recordings.

"I don't listen to any recordings, including my own," he said. "I listen to them because I have to approve the edit, but when it's done, it's done. It's gone.

"I listen to music when I drive sometimes, say, a classical radio station, but listening to music is not part of my everyday diet."

He suggests that his own musicmaking is enough. "You kind of have it, so why rub it in? When I was younger, I was absorbing a lot of things, many influences, many recordings, but somehow it's all faded away at the moment."

Feltsman is perhaps best known for his performance of J.S. Bach. From 1992 to 1996, he gave an acclaimed series of Bach recitals in New York, and he has recorded virtually all the composer's keyboard works.

"I never get tired of this music, or bored with it. This is my daily bread," he said.

"When you deal with Bach, there is unavoidably a very profound impact on you as an artist, a personality, a musician. As a human being, I would say. The effect is very positive. You're learning through Bach a lesson which you cannot learn through any other composer. But that lesson is universal in its nature, so it could be applied to any music that you play."