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Piano Lessons: Reflections from a Life in Music
by Vladimir Feltsman
272 pages including discography
ISBN: 9781644387771
First published 2019

This book is divided into four main sections: Vladimir Feltsman’s essays about music, the programme and liner-notes he wrote for his own concerts and recordings and a study of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. An appendix provides very brief, almost aphoristic sketches summarising what Feltsman sees as the significance and major characteristics of twenty-seven composers and a discography detailing fifty-two of his sixty recordings to date. As such, it is somewhat eclectic but its essential theme is to reflect, as he says in the preface, the “taste, views and experience” of a musician now in his late sixties who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the music he loves.

He is certainly one of the foremost and most versatile pianists before the public today, perhaps best known as a specialist in both Bach and Schubert but with a repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to 20C composers; he is also a conductor and an influential teacher as Professor of Piano at the State University of New York and a member of the piano faculty at the Mannes College of Music in New York City. An extra layer of interest derives from the fact that although he is now an American citizen resident in New York State, he was born in Soviet Russia where, on applying for an exit visa in 1979, he was banned and suppressed for eight years before finally being allowed to leave for the United States where, on his arrival in 1987, he performed his first North American recital at the White House and triumphed in his Carnegie Hall debut, but Feltsman immediately in the Preface issues a caveat against looking for “explanations” of music by looking at the circumstances of a composer’s life or seeking any moral equivalence between a great work of art and its creator -” being a great artist does not necessarily coincide with being a decent person”. The reader is inevitably intrigued by examining how biographical context might influence creativity or interpretation, and there is plenty of scope here for speculation as so many of the Soviet composers Feltsman advocates led miserable lives of persecution and oppression, but Feltsman is humbly dismissive of exploiting his own “ordeal” as a “refusenik”.

I admit to having been rather put off by the opening chapter dealing with the question, “What is music?”, insofar as I found its philosophical conjectures rather abstruse and its many unsupported assertions debatable – for example, to take a couple at random, that the “spiritual” appeal of music can be “dangerous”, or that “music can help us recognize the fundamental unity of existence”. And is it universally true that, “[a]t the beginning of the creative process, there is an initial impulse, an instantaneous vision and comprehension of the whole that contains multiple possibilities of realization”? Perhaps I misunderstand, but positing the possibility of numerous outcomes seems to contradict the idea that the artist has a clear vision of its realisation and surely some creative geniuses do not know where their inspiration is heading when they embark on a work. Certainly I can agree that, “All great works of art are inspired and ‘bigger’ than their creators” and I like the poetry and even the imprecision of some of his maxims such as “Music is the art of organising and manipulating time; music is time made audible” (the latter being repeated in different chapters) but am baffled by statements like, “It seems to me that we are always moving toward the past that lies ahead” and I feel that we are on happier ground once these speculations are out of the way and Feltsman moves on to more practical observations.

Much more to my taste is the next chapter, “Years of Learning”, about Feltsman’s teachers and role models. As a retired teacher, I particularly appreciate the honour he does to teaching as a profession and his reminiscence of such colossal figures as Gilels and Richter and the host of great musicians active as performers and in the conservatories in Russia during his youth. Concluding “Part I Essays” are three short chapters: “Practicing”, “Performing” and “Recording”, which are spare and precise, giving specific advice while taking a legitimate swipe at the corrosive influence of political correctness upon teaching and lacing the narrative with a few amusing anecdotes.

Part II consists of the programme notes Feltsman wrote for three concerts he gave in 2003 when he presented music by fourteen Soviet composers, some of whom are familiar whereas others are merely names, or not even that, to Western ears, He makes some interesting distinctions between underground and avant-garde art and the role of “morally responsible” art in the development and gradual liberalisation of 20C Russian and Soviet culture. Feltsman has long been a champion of Russian composers whom he considers to be neglected; some of those feature on his recent Nimbus recital “Forgotten Russians”; in the chapter about teaching he expresses the surprising opinion the oratorio The Mystery of the Apostle Paul by his friend Nikolai Karetnikov (1930-1994) “to be one of the most important musical works of the second half of the twentieth century”. (There is no commercial recording of this, but his Singspiel Till Eulenspiegel is readily available.)

There is perhaps an inherent tension and even a contradiction in that the first two parts of the book and the first half of each liner note appears to be aimed more at the general reader whereas the second section seems to have been devised for the professional musicologist or musician. However, as Feltsman explains in the preface, “the introductory part is meant to be more accessible to non-musicians…while the analysis is more specific and technical in nature.” The liner notes reproduced here constitute by far the largest portion of the book and contain a wealth of information, explanation and guidance. Of course, those who already possess the CDs will already have the texts in the booklets but they are conveniently gathered here. They offer clear historical context but also place the works within the sweep of Bach’s own development as a musician, and what technical analysis there is remains luminously clear; for example, Feltsman offers a practical explanation of why he chooses to include all the repeats in his performances of the Goldberg Variations. Nor does he neglect the emotional and even miraculous nature of the composers’ inspiration, and along the way he provides some illuminating aperçus, such how Bach’s attachment to the number six and avoidance of seven might have reflected his interest in numerology, typical of his era, or even have had its origin in his religious beliefs. This combination of observational styles applies to the notes for the recordings he has made of a dozen more composers, and they are too many and varied to illustrate comprehensively here.

Part IV presents an overview and analysis of the all the Preludes and Fugues in the two Books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Essentially, Feltsman has collated his accumulated experience to suggest – not insist – how this music can be interpreted and played. Sometimes, however, his statements take on an absolute and axiomatic quality; one will suffice to illustrate this: “All of Bach’s work is an ‘Offering’ and SDG [Soli Deo Gloria] applies to the whole of his art and life. The real purpose of his art was the confirmation of the ever-present Grace that manifests itself constantly in every act of genuine creativity.” Feltsman’s views on correct Baroque style are interesting, too: “Dry Bach is not Bach.” He insists that tempi must never be mechanical but reflect the rhythms of human speech. These, and other such guidance, must prove invaluable to both the performer and the auditor – or even the critic.

The book’s production values are high – I found only one error on page 30 where there is a superfluous “that” in the beginning of third paragraph – but some photographs would have been welcome, The written style is good; English is not Feltsman’s first language but he is wholly fluent and has been well edited. The balance of contents here might be a little uneven but I stress that my few reservations regarding this are as nothing compared to my admiration for its author as an artist; I have glowingly reviewed for MusicWeb ten of his recordings and none is less than admirable. As a means of providing further insight into Feltsman’s development and achievement, “Piano Lessons” is both informative and engaging.

Ralph Moore

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