Vladimir Feltsman’s ‘Russian Experiment’ at the Aspen Music Festival

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Vladimir Feltsman
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Vladimir Feltsman, presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Wednesday Aug. 12, 8:30 p.m. & Thursday, Aug. 13, 8 p.m.

How much: $55

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices;

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman is attempting to revive the works of largely forgotten composers from his native Russia.

With two nights of recitals at the Aspen Music Festival and School, dubbed the “Russian Experiment,” Feltsman hopes to introduce an American audience to music by a group of 20th century composers whose work was suppressed during the Soviet era.

“It’s basically unknown music,” Feltsman said between rehearsals this week.

The acclaimed Russian pianist, now based in New York, has been performing at the Aspen Music Festival consistently for more than two decades. His recitals tonight and Thursday showcase experimental works by eight different Russians, beginning with Aleksandr Mosolov, Nikolai Roslavets and Sergei Protopopov. Among the composers on the two-night program, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aleksandr Skryabin are the only ones to achieve world-renown and a place in the classical canon, but Feltsman is hoping to change that by highlighting their lesser-known contemporaries’ influence.

“These composers are not known or played even in Russia,” said Feltsman. “And it’s absolutely first-rate music. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. … And if not me, then who?”

The work is unknown in Russia because it was suppressed under Stalin – who sentenced Mosolov, for example, to a gulag and later to exile, for his work – and unknown elsewhere because these composers never left the Soviet Union. Feltsman argued that their better-known Russian contemporaries – composers like Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, writers like Vladimir Nabokov – would also be forgotten today had they not emigrated to the West and found audiences beyond the Iron Curtain.

Feltsman’s first recital focuses largely on works from the early 1920s; the second looks at music from after World War Two and stretching into the waning days of the Soviet Union.

The challenging works in the programs are harmonically experimental and often atonal.

“It’s not an easy program to play or to listen to, but it’s important,” Feltsman said.

If the work is difficult, that’s largely because it was written responding to the tense and often fearful experience of life under Stalin.

“It was not meant to entertain or amuse, but to turn our attention to the basic conditions of life,” Feltsman writes in one of two critical essays on the programs published by the Music Festival, “to what is really important, and to ask hard questions that can be answered only by ourselves.”

Feltsman is recording the two nights of concerts, which will feature guest musicians accompanying him both nights, in the hopes of eventually releasing the music on an album or two and restoring the reputations of these forgotten composers.

“Of course I will be happy if people begin to pay attention to these important artists,” he said. “But that is out of my hands. I do what I can. We’ll see what happens.”