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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fraud on the Loose

MY WATERSHED MOMENT came a couple of Sundays ago, as pianist Vladimir Feltsman returned to the stage of Union College’s Memorial Chapel and played the last of the Chopin nocturnes. It was an encore to a concert that had finished with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” about as grand a display of virtuosity as you can get this side of Alkan.

Vladimir Feltsman
And then he played the Chopin piece which, in that context, was more compelling than any Chopin performance I’ve heard before. That’s when I realized that, as a critic, I’m a fraud. I try to render judgment in terms of absolutes. It makes me sound smart. When I force myself to confront myself, I see that I’m making it up as I go along.

How could I judge this piece? This concert? The experience was riddled with paradox. For one thing, I didn’t particularly care for the way Feltsman played the nocturne. It was too loose-limbed, its opening notes too melodramatic. But after the thunderous close of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the last of the preceding pictures, the churn of emotion in the hall was so high that the touch of melodrama – which soon disappeared – made a perfect transition, easing down on the brakes.

I have this belief that perfection in Chopin’s nocturnes was achieved in the recordings of Arthur Rubinstein and few others. Which reveals another facet of my fraudulent thinking. I’ve let myself be a victim of the dance-with-the-girl-you-came-in-with phenomenon, believing that the first recording I got to know of a particular piece was the true and only one. I try not to admit that, especially to myself. It didn’t hurt that I was listening to Rubinstein and Toscanini and Heifetz. I learned some great interpretations. Or maybe it did hurt: I became obsessed with precision.

Even that comes with its own set of blinders. Recently I re-listened to a number of Heifetz recordings, issued in a now-out-of-print box set of almost all of his output, and noticed how painfully out of control he sounds in his final recital. He was 71 and had stopped concertizing a few years before. A TV special recorded two years earlier showed him in good form in some short pieces and the Bach Chaconne, but his performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was so below par that he wouldn’t allow it on the LP that followed.

But here he was trying to come to grips with the Franck sonata, ultimately suffering a bit of train wreck in its final moments. Throughout the recital his bow control is dodgy and his finger-slips are many. Yet when I first listened to the LP set, I heard none of the flaws. I couldn’t bear to.

Many years of writing about restaurants has taught me that the finest meals often have little to do with how well the food is prepared. If you’re making sheep’s eyes at a comely companion in a dimly lit room and you’re getting smoldering glances in return, you’ll also find ambrosia in that burnt moussaka.

Feltsman’s “Pictures” began with such a thunderous Promenade that I feared he’d stormed in to tear the pictures off the wall – it’s marked “forte” in the score, and I’d call what Feltsman did “fortississimo.” Taken in context, however, this took place just after intermission, with stragglers still struggling into their pews, and he needed to persuade the muttering sonsabitches to shut the hell up. Can’t criticize him for that!

Of course they roared to their feet at the close of the piece. The Capital Region indiscriminately showers ovations like parade confetti. In this case, it was well deserved. It went on and on. And when Feltsman finally returned to the piano and thundered out the opening notes of the Chopin, that gesture, too, did the needed business of shutting up the crowd. The loose-limbed performance that followed brought tears to my eyes. Afterward, my wife, who is a great fan of Chopin’s music, said she wished Feltsman had quit after the Mussorgsky. I didn’t dare tell her how I felt about it.

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