Spring break had little effect on the turnout of eager music lovers in the beautifully restored Baldwin Auditorium on the East Campus of Duke University for the penultimate concert in Duke Performances’ Piano Recital Series. The featured artist was Vladimir Feltsman who has given many memorable recitals in both the Triangle and Triad regions of our state. This concert was no exception. He chose to pair stylistically pivotal sonatas by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) with a showpiece and warhorse from the repertoire of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81).

Haydn did so much to establish the forms that would become standard for most of the Classical and Romantic era, such as the four movements used for quartets and symphonies. His piano sonatas gradually evolved from “divertimentos” through an irregular number of movements. Haydn was heavily influenced by Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach’s use of Empfindsamkeit– a musical language of heightened sensibility. Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Hob. XVI: 46 was composed around 1767-68 and is from Haydn’s “middle” creative period. The first movement, with its irregular phrases, delicate ornaments, and sighing appoggiaturas, reflects C.P.E. Bach’s model of volatility. There is a free fantasia in the middle. The use of the key A-flat in the first movement is remarkable. Even rarer is the D-flat used in the wonderful Adagio which has a quality of unusually intimate expression. The brilliant finale continues the composer’s exploration of harmonies.

Feltsman played with great care for color, dynamics, and rhythm. The clarity of his articulation was remarkable as was his refined palette of dynamics. Ornaments were gorgeous jewels and Haydn’s use of baroque forms, polyphony and contrapuntal writing were carefully delineated.

Bold experimentation with key is central to the Sonata No. 4 in A minor, D. 537, one of six sonatas composed by Schubert in 1817. It is in three movements. In the first movement, the exposition is very long while the development is relatively short. Extensive use is made of repetition as well as of long sequential patterns. Throughout all three movements, Schubert modulates to wander pretty far from key to key. The middle movement, Allegretto quasi Andantino, has a wonderful singing line interrupted by a series of chromatic harmonies midway. The finale, Allegro vivace, juxtaposes its two halves against each other. It is sparkling and carefree and the composer makes much use of repetition and many dramatic pauses.

Feltsman’s interpretation was brilliant. Schubert’s seamless singing line was spun out, and there was nothing stale about the repeated phrases. Feltsman brought a drama to his gestures to heighten the composer’s significant pauses. It reminded me of an older generation of pianists who have long since passed.

This area has not lacked for performances of Pictures at an Exposition by Mussorgsky. It is one of the few works that the composer quickly completed in a short period of time! The music evokes the composer walking about and looking at various paintings by his late friend Victor Hartmann. The promenade music which opens the piece is subtly changed to link each vividly characterized picture: “The Gnome,” “Tuileries,” “Cattle,” “Bydlo,” “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells,” “Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuyle,” “The Marketplace in Limoges,” “The Catacombs,” followed by “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua,” “The Hut of Baba Yaga,” and “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

Feltsman’s interpretation and playing of this well-known piece of the repertoire will stay at the top of my short list of memorable performances. I liked the variety of nuance he brought to each return of the promenade theme. He brought great power and rich sonority to such sections as “The Old Castle,” “Bydlo,” “The Catacombs,” and not least, the magnificent “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was done without the least bit of pounding or tonal distortion (unlike another Russian pianist I heard in the 80s). Grotesque episodes such as “The Gnome” or “Goldenberg and Schmuyle” were vividly characterized. Playful details abounded in “Tuileries” and “Ballet of the Chicks.” Feltman’s palette of color was breathtaking.

The enthusiastic audience response was rewarded with a glowing performance of the Liebestraume No. 3, Nocturne in A-flat, S. 541/R. 211:3 by Franz Liszt (1811-86).

The Piano Recital Series Season ends Friday April 3 with Paul Lewis performing Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 30-32. There are some tickets still available. For details click here