Vladimir Feltsman, Russian e'migre' pianist, played American music yesterday to open and close his first concert in the United States.

It was in the East Room of the White House, and the audience, which included leading members of the arts community from Washington and elsewhere, sprang to its feet as soon as it recognized the opening phrases of a vigorously played "Star-Spangled Banner" at the beginning. That could have been a ceremonial gesture, but the motive was pure enthusiasm when everyone stood up to cheer again after Feltsman played a Scott Joplin rag for his second and final encore.

President and Mrs. Reagan, sitting in the front row, led the applause, and then the president, in a brief greeting, hailed the pianist as "not only a great musician," but "a hero of the human spirit."

"One critic called you 'extraordinary and brilliant,' and another said that you 'must be counted among the great musicians of the world,' " Reagan said. "After hearing you play, I think they were indulging in understatement."

Some of his fellow musicians agreed. Violinist Isaac Stern, who was hearing him live for the first time, said, "He's a wonderful pianist; he has a remarkable pair of hands, and to play as well as he did in the circumstances is extraordinary." When you want an objective assessment of a pianist, ask a violinist.

Feltsman's own assessment after the recital was modest but confident. "I was nervous," he said, "but I think I was playing not bad."

Although he says his specialty is German music -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann -- his program also included samples from other traditions: Liszt, Rachmaninoff and (in his first encore) some dazzling Debussy. His technique was impressive, but even more impressive was his response to the poetry implicit in the music.

It hasn't been much more than a month since Feltsman arrived from the Soviet Union. But there is no "Moscow on the Hudson" naivete' about this e'migre', who will give his first public performance Nov. 11 at Carnegie Hall.

This is the first time Feltsman has ever been in the United States, but in an interview, speaking remarkably fluent English, the wiry, bearded, athletic, 35-year-old musician sounded like a veteran of the American concert scene. He knows the complexities of our music business, how to survive in Manhattan and how he expects to be treated. He has already taken some piano students at the State University of New York in New Paltz, where he has rented a house. He has also rented an apartment on Manhattan's East Side, with a Steinway concert grand now installed, and he is taking a careful look at the offers and requests that have flooded in since he arrived.

"I have not signed contracts with any managers," he says. "Not yet. I wait a little bit -- I have to think very carefully, with a cool mind, about all the pluses and minuses ... I am looking not for the number of the concerts but for the quality of the concerts."

Feltsman has been out of the public eye as a pianist for eight years, though he has become something of an international celebrity because of the obstacles to his art. He reacts a bit quizzically to this notoriety: "I can only hope that people will still be interested in me because I play the piano well."

What happened to Feltsman is almost a textbook example of bureaucratic vindictiveness. In the spring of 1979, he and his wife Anna applied for an exit visa. They were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union last August, with their 4-year-old son Daniel, who had been born while they were waiting. In the meantime, they were subjected to a kind of harassment -- official and unofficial -- that people in western democracies find hard to imagine.

"Two hours after we applied, it was clear that they would do something bad to me," Feltsman says. "It was at the end of April. I made clear my desire to leave the country, and two hours later, when I was back home, I got a telephone call from a good friend who worked at a radio and television station. He said, 'What happened? We just got a call from our biggest, biggest chief, and he said never to play again your music, your records or your videotapes.' That was within two hours. Then, for two years, I played no concerts at all. They canceled everything. I ceased to exist as an artist.

"For two years, I sent numerous letters to the Trade Union Central Committee and the minister of culture saying, 'Look, either let me go or let me play. It's impossible.' And I was getting great international support. So they gave me opportunities to play, but mostly in small cities, not in Moscow or Leningrad or on major concert stages. Until the last day, I played a limited number of concerts, let's say around 30 in a whole season, and only last April, suddenly -- I have absolutely no idea why they did it -- they invite me to play in a major concert hall in Moscow, Tchaikovsky Hall. My first major concert in eight years and my last concert in Russia. Why they did it is not clear, but they invited me to play two days before the secretary of state's visit to Moscow. What connection there is, I cannot say. But that is the fact."

The Tchaikovsky Hall concert may have been part of an effort to erase memories of what happened in February 1986, when Feltsman was scheduled to give a recital at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.

Shortly before that recital for 300 invited guests, somebody cut the strings of the ambassador's piano. The vandalism was not detected until Feltsman sat down to practice.

"That was a most stupid thing," he says, "but excellent for me. I could not even dream of such publicity as they gave me. Now, I can speak about it with a smile, but when I found myself sitting at the piano one hour before the concert, to warm up my hands, and I start to play and I realize that something is wrong in the piano, it was not so nice.

"The ambassador's reaction was great. He was staying at his dacha near Moscow, and he came back a half hour before the concert, and his secretary told him with trembling hands what had happened, and the ambassador looked at me and we just started to laugh. The next week, there was a stupid article in Tass {the Soviet press agency} that accused me of taking part in an anti-Soviet show, together with the Americans. They blamed the ambassador, they blamed me, they blamed everybody."

It is still "not clear" who vandalized the piano, he says, "but it is clear that it was not me."

A building with extraterritorial status was the only place in Moscow where he could give a concert during all his years as a nonperson, and he gave four at Spaso House with the help of Arthur A. Hartman, who was ambassador in Moscow from 1981 until early this year. He credits Hartman for extraordinary efforts in the "eight-year game" that finally secured his exit visa from the Soviet Union. At the White House yesterday, the concert stirred old memories for Hartman. "None of us thought, when we were sitting around keeping up one another's morale in Moscow, that this would ever happen. But it has. The Reagans deserve a lot of credit. They kept pushing."

At the White House, President Reagan recalled Feltsman's "long and difficult years" of waiting for a visa, and quoted the pianist's remark that he had become a better musician during this ordeal. "That you manifest no bitterness is proof that you are not only a great musicians. It is proof that you are a hero of the human spirit," Reagan said.

Feltsman sees his harassment as part of "a very old problem" that "the Soviets create by their own actions."

"Look at who they have lost," he says. "Rostropovich, Solzhenitsyn, Misha Baryshnikov, Rudi Nureyev, {poet Josef} Brodsky, a lot of names. I think there is reason to be proud of Russian culture, and they are the best ambassadors for Russian culture. But how they treat these people ... it's awful. If we all had the opportunity to play abroad freely, to make concerts and then come back home, there would be no trouble. Nobody would stay here.

"They don't trust their own people -- especially people who create their own image and fame. They want to treat us as their property. There are some people who can accept this rule and some people who cannot. I never could. That was my trouble."

Feltsman says he believes that Mikhail Gorbachev "is serious, frank and honest" about glasnost, "and I like him as a person. But the other question is if he really can do what he wants. That's a great question: Will the Soviet system, this huge monstrosity, let him do what he wants?

"But I as a human being, as a man who was born in Russia and has friends there, who lived there 35 years of my life, I wish the Soviet people good luck, because they suffer a lot, they really suffer a lot. And if Gorbachev will do something good, really, I will be only happy for my poor country."

But as far as Feltsman is concerned, his country now is the United States. He was particularly touched by the American greeting that was waiting for him when he and his family landed in Vienna, the first place they touched down after leaving Moscow. It included not only good wishes and practical assistance but also his first concert invitation.

"As soon as we landed," he says, "we found ourselves among friends. It was Warren Zimmerman, the ambassador to the Helsinki accords discussions, who welcomed us, and we really felt very good. Five minutes later, Warren Zimmerman gave me a letter from Mrs. Reagan with a kind invitation to play. So, in my first hour in the West, I was engaged for my first concert. Of course, I have no objections to playing there. I know that it is a great honor, and it will also be a great pleasure. I will be the third musician from Russia to play there. The others are Slava Rostropovich and Horowitz, and I have absolutely no objection to being the third on such a great list."

Washington Post reporter Donnie Radcliffe contributed to this story.