Vladimir Feltsman’s take on Bach is consistent with his approach to other composers. This is macho Bach: low-fat, temperamental, sometimes impatient, always energetic, never dreamy-eyed. He eschews mannerisms yet honors the nuances. His slow movements are transparent and cool. His fast movements are a bit Scarlatti-esque - brisk and perky, like scattered pebbles. He is good in toccata-like episodes where the music is propelled forward. The “crowded” moments are clear and transparent, with a good presentation of all the voices.
The opening movements tend towards dry and grainy yet are always expressive. The Allemandes are cool and fresh, and sing their sadness with sincerity and restraint: after all being macho does not preclude sentiment. In some places there’s a slight abruptness as if the narrator is embarrassed about expressing his feelings. The Courantes are frolicsome while the Minuets are hasty and can be a tad mechanical. The Sarabandes are attractive for their purity: where others sing, Feltsman narrates, and his narration is sincere. I really loved his Gigues: athletic and enthralling, full of light and energy. He reminds us that this was the dance of drunken sailors.
The speed is usually not excessive; he keeps it at a comfortable level - but, for example, the 2nd
is rushed to the point of losing the evenness of tempo, and becomes nervous. He makes the Fourth Partita’s Allemande
unhurried and impatient at the same time. The expressivity is gentle and restrained; the music speaks for itself. There are tempo fluctuations, but they have logic.
The Fifth Partita is the least directly emotional of the six and so is usually difficult to pull off convincingly; Feltsman makes it interesting. His reading is fresh and youthful, with Mozartean granularity. The Sarabande
is sparse as a quivering tattered cobweb; Feltsman’s delicate play with nuance makes the music live and breathe. The Tempo di minuetto
is even more demanding, with its rhythm completely off the grid. It requires good judgment in practically every sound if balance is not to be ruined. In Feltsman’s hands it becomes less of a befuddling puzzle and more of a fascinating brainteaser.
I liked the way he chose the tempo and weight for the 6th
. It shows admirable drive and is not so fast that it becomes fussy. It may be that I have become used to more Romantic interpretations of this Partita, but I perceive a certain remoteness in Feltsman’s approach. He rejects all theatre and superficial Romanticism. His approach is narrative and objective, not passionate, yet the beauties of the music are still there to be heard.
Bach’s Partitas contain some of the most beautiful music ever written. Vladimir Feltsman is alert and engaged but what I miss is the magic that some pianists can bring to Bach, that jaw-dropping wow-factor that causes us to drop everything and listen. It may not be explicit in the notes, and some may call it an artificial addition, but I believe that it’s all there in the music waiting to be liberated. Overall, these are very good performances benefiting from very good recording quality. They will suit the tastes of those who prefer their Bach without a too-obvious Romantic overlay.
See also review by Ralph Moore