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The artistic perils of being politically interesting

Long before pianist Vladimir Feltsman was allowed to emigrate from his native Russia, he was a cause c'el`ebre in the United States. When the current Soviet regime finally agreed, after eight years, to allow the pianist to emigrate, he came at once to the US, where he was received with open arms, given major management, and handed an ambitious recording contract as well as a teaching job and a stunning schedule of debut dates.

By the time Mr. Feltsman made his official US concert hall debut at Carnegie Hall in December, though, he had become more a political icon than a musician.

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That recital has just been issued on two compact discs (CBS Masterworks, digital, M2K 44589) along with a 10-year-old recording of Schubert's ``Wanderer'' Fantasy and ``Moments Musicaux'' (CBS Masterworks, analogue, MK 42569).

I have heard Feltsman play two concertos - the Brahms Second (B-flat major) and the Rachmaninoff Third (in D minor). Together with the recordings, it is possible to get a handle on the pianist who will be performing in just about every major and lesser musical center in the US over the next few seasons.

On the debut album, there is not one performance that leaps out of the speakers and really grabs the listener. I think of another live-from-Carnegie Hall CBS album, that of Horowitz's historic return in '65, where just about every cut is remarkable, several legendary. And RCA has a live Carnegie recording of a very young Van Cliburn stunning his audience with a stupendous account of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. These albums are documents of something exceptional.

Feltsman begins with a ponderous rendition of the Schubert A major sonata, D. 664, and concludes with a noisy, rather harsh yet intense account of Schumann's ``Symphonic Etudes.'' The selections from Olivier Messiaen's ``Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant J'esus'' are rather brutal and lack the variety of timbres and colors needed to make the music cast a spell. The lingering result of this recital CD is that of a pianist sorely in need of musical seasoning.

More specifically, his playing sounds Russian the way the early Richter and Gilels records sound Russian. The latter two gained immeasurably from their work in the US, but one can hear on those performances startling sparks of insight that are missing in Feltsman's playing. I heard some of those sparks in the Brahms, which is perhaps the most physically taxing concerto in the piano repertoire.

His partner at the New York Philharmonic benefit concert last winter was Zubin Mehta, and together they took a forward-moving, no-nonsense view of Brahms's score. Feltsman rode the climaxes with ease; he had the stamina to sound as fresh at the end of the concerto as at the beginning.

On the basis of this Brahms, I had sincerely hoped to be swept away by the Rachmaninoff, performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier this month at Carnegie. The orchestra was in superb form, but unexpectedly, Feltsman chose merely to get all the notes out without shape or nuance. And while just getting through this wickedly complicated work is a feat in itself, I had hoped to hear him really stamp this performance with a personal statement.

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It has not been heard yet, that special something. It is, in fact, so missing on the Schubert ``Wanderer'' Fantasy - a technically flawed recording as well as a surprisingly heavy-handed reading - that one wonders why CBS would release it in the first place. The ``Moments Musicaux'' have some lovely moments, but nothing compelling, and the sound is so tubby and so distorted in the climaxes as to be utterly unrepresentative of CBS Masterworks quality.

Feltsman is only 32 years old and has time to grow, if he is not put on the artistically crippling sort of schedule so popular with managements today. Yet it is possible that he will find his communicative powers revived by all his coming US dates. Happily, the outcome is in no way predictable.

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