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Pianist deftly handles a study in contrasts

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman is a master of dramatic contrast, and his recital program of Schumann and Mussorgsky on Thursday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall played to that strength. The piano music of Schumann is, for the most part, inward looking, psychologically complex, while that of Mussorgsky is mainly about externals, creating musical pictures that leap to life from the keyboard.

Feltsman, a Russian emigre steeped in the heroic piano tradition of his homeland but lately noted for his Bach, bridged the contrasting worlds of Schumann and Mussorgsky with virtuosic ease.

The first half of the program was all Schumann, opening with his Arabesque, a short work divided between a lyrical theme, trippingly played in the bass and middle register of the instrument, and wistful introspection.

Was Schumann a forerunner of the surrealists? That, of course, is not how the composer is normally regarded, but the case could well be made with Carnaval, his set of character pieces that touches upon a remarkably wide, almost schizophrenic range of moods.

It includes those Schumann standbys Florestan and Eusebius, his inner demons representing the extroverted and introverted aspects of his personality, respectively. The jolting contrast between the two was nicely negotiated by Feltsman, with deft pedaling in the Eusebius section.

Victor Hartmann was, by most accounts, a mediocre Russian painter, but he had a big fan in his friend Modest Mussorgsky. After Hartmann died, the composer organized a posthumous exhibition of his work and wrote a fabulous suite of piano pieces, each describing one of the pictures.

Most concertgoers know Pictures at an Exhibition from Ravel's orchestration, and that is a great piece of music, but it was a special treat to hear the original for piano in such good hands. Again, dramatic contrast was the rule, as when Feltsman went from the fleetness of The Marketplace in Limoges to the dark heaviness of In the Catacombs in an instant, but there was also a real sense of flow to the whole performance. His forceful treatment of The Great Gate of Kiev was electrifying.

For an encore, Feltsman sent the crowd of 697 home with an elegant run through Liszt's gorgeous arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung (Dedication).