The first time I heard Vladimir Feltsman play the piano was in a dark Moscow stairwell. We had just finished talking, a sad conversation between a visiting American journalist and yet another Russian refusenik, and immediately after I left, Feltsman bolted to the piano. Schubert -- rich, somber -- cascaded down the stairwell and past the ubiquitous Russian woman who, in either myth or fact, reports all visitors to the KGB. Feltsman seemed to be in a prison from which he would never escape.

The next time I heard Feltsman play was at the Kennedy Center the other night. He began with Schubert, moved into Messiaen, finished with Schumann and "went home" only for an encore -- a piece by an earlier Russian e'migre' to America, Sergei Rachmaninoff. President and Mrs. Reagan listened from their box, and afterward there was a party. This was Feltsman's third American concert -- the White House, Carnegie Hall and, now, the Kennedy Center.

There's an old joke about the out-of-towner who stops a New Yorker and asks how to get to Carnegie Hall. "Practice," he's told. Feltsman practiced, but that's not what got him to Carnegie Hall. Instead, it was an indomitable faith, a belief that not even the vast Soviet state -- dispenser of apartments, favors and even life itself -- could deprive him of the right to play the piano wherever he could. Feltsman has a term for that: "artistic independence." It means Carnegie Hall.

That day in his Moscow apartment I was sorry for Feltsman -- and felt certain he would never be granted permission to emigrate. He applied six years earlier, and the punishment was immediate. He was barred from playing the major cities -- Moscow, Leningrad -- and banished to tour the provinces. His records were yanked from the shops. In the Soviet context, Feltsman's demand was absurd and selfish. He was not in clear ideological rebellion against the state or a religious Jew yearning for Israel, but a one-time child prodigy who wanted to play the world's concert stages.

Why should a communist state recognize such an urge? Why should the Soviet Union make an exception for Feltsman? Why, especially, when his father, Oskar, was one of the best known of popular Soviet composers? The American community in Moscow had adopted Feltsman. Did that make matters worse or better for him? The American ambassador, Arthur Hartman, burnished Feltsman's talent by having him play at Spasso House, the ambassador's residence.

Congressmen came to call -- Jack Kemp, in particular. Feltsman's apartment was a stop for visiting journalists, and he told them -- as he told me -- that he would prevail. It seemed a hollow speech, followed during my visit with a plunging change of expression. Sadness seized his face. Before his wife, he admitted to bouts of depression. "Artistic independence" might never happen after all.

We all make compromises. We all seek to protect what we have. By Soviet standards, Feltsman had plenty. He was a concert pianist. The state was his manager, booking agent and box office. It paid him. It granted him an apartment, small by American -- but not Russian -- standards. To most Russians, Feltsman lived a sweet life. But he had seen France, Japan, Italy. He wanted more -- "artistic independence." For eight years, the one-time toast of Paris played the sticks.

Who are these people -- these Russian dissidents and refuseniks? Who are these people who stand up to the state, who risk all or almost all? What sort of person can weather years of doubt and depression, can actually live the silly things we tell children about perseverance and independence? And why are they often people, like Andrei Sakharov, who have the most to lose? One by one Sakharov's privileges were stripped from him until he was banished to Gorki. Like Feltsman, he was punished by having his genius starved. Books and journals were kept from him. His body was banished, his intellect jailed.

The music critics say we have yet to learn if Vladimir Feltsman is a major talent. Three concerts do not a genius make, and years of isolation from the musical mainstream must have taken their toll. But the true talent of Feltsman -- like that of other dissidents and Refuseniks -- is not the musical ability for which he is a mere host, but the incredible persistence he has shown. His talent and those who nurtured it -- his wife, the American community in Moscow -- helped sustain him, but in the end it was a lone man who sat down to play at the Kennedy Center. His talent brought down the house. His courage brought him there in the first place.