Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Russian-goatee, moustache, hair swept back, high forehead, Hans Keller-ish. Stern, quiet. From 1922 the bachelor professor of the Moscow Conservatory, ceaselessly honing his technique. Born in 1890 in the Black Sea port of Odessa – “where the Ukraininan steppes come to an end and European trains set out for abroad” (Faubion Bowers) – Samuil Feinberg grew up in Moscow on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and the Classico-Romantics.

Making sure he heard the greats of the day – D’Albert, Reisenauer, Hofmann – he applied himself with a diligence and intensity beyond duty. Under Alexander Goldenweiser at the Conservatory, severe face of the old guard, his graduation repertory (1911) scaled the awesome.The rules then were that the whole programme should be prepared no more than two to three months [in advance] and Goldenweiser adhered to these rules … my programme included not only the Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues by Bach … but also a Handel Concerto in Stradal’s transcription, an Adagio by Mozart [B-minor], Chopin’s Nocturne in C-minor [from Opus 48], the Fourth Sonata of Scriabin, then Franck’s Prelude Choral and Fugue, then Rachmaninov’s [new] Third Concerto.”

A musician drawn in life to the unassailability of Bach and pure polyphony, he gave the first public performance in Russia of the complete Forty Eight in 1914, repeating the marathon in 1923, 1938-39 and 1940. In 1941 he embarked on the first of his Beethoven Sonata cycles. In 1925 he gave the Soviet premiere of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto (22 March). Later in Berlin he became one of the first artists to broadcast ‘live’ on radio (1927). His ascent in the West ceased with the Stalin terrors of the late-1930s, his last permitted excursion away, in June 1938, being a visit to Brussels to sit on the jury of the second Ysaÿe Competition, won by Gilels (Michelangeli coming seventh). Never a member of the Party, antipathetic to proletarian/social realist order, conscious of his fragility as a Jew in anti-Semitic society (notwithstanding the award of a Stalin Prize in 1946), black-listed with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian in Zhdanov’s post-war cultural purge, he spent the remainder of his life within Communist confinement. In 1956 heart trouble forced his retirement from the stage, though not his disciples. He died in 1962.

Pianism as Art (Moscow 1965), posthumously published, gathers his keynote writings. “Regarding the creative freedom of a pianist, one should underline the need for a musical image that is nurtured by the mental ear. Reading of the score should come before the production of sound … Music lives before and after the actual sound, in constant development. Musical memory connects preceding sounds with their later development, joining the future and the past, and creating the image of a whole musical form. The charm and poetry of a solo performance are in the fact that the transition from inner image to real sound is achieved by the individual will of an artist … The elastic reality of art and its shadow are synthesized in a united creative process.”

“Refracting” (his word) a composer’s “directions and shadings” was the essence of Feinberg’s art. “A composer’s instruction should not become a foreign impulse that simply makes a performer play sforzando at a given moment.” Feinberg’s reasoning explains Feinberg’s way. He spoke of “the dreamy images of Chopin, Schumann, and Scriabin that sometimes lie outside the boundaries of real sound.” He believed, from deep-rooted conviction, that “the score of a composer is not a marching order ‘to be performed’.”

Feinberg was something of an ebb-and-flow pianist. An artist of contradictions drawn to the re-creative act through individualised rhapsody and quasi-extemporisation, his rhythm and timing dependent more on context and underlay than bar-lines or stylistic considerations, with a variability of tempo oscillating between free rein and no licence at all. For him “conscientious control of the fruits of the imagination” was good. “Over-analysed art where all the elements are deftly calculated and a theoretician is the sole tsar of the creative process” was bad.

As a composer, his catalogue is modest. A dozen Piano Sonatas (1915-62) – eight of them (Nos.1, 2, 4-6, 9-11, cf Scriabin, Roslavets) single-movement constructions; three Piano Concertos (1931-47); a late Violin sonata (1955-56); some songs and romances (1917-58). An assortment of transcriptions – including  three movements from Tchaikovsky’s Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (1942), the most celebrated being the Pathétique’s march: in the hands of some pianists (Kristina Miller) a feathered but mechanical drill, in the vision of others (Volodos) a fantasque more devastating than the original. Lazar Berman was fond of it. Spiritually, suggested his friend Anatoly Alexandrov, he was one whose “music always strives to decipher the macrocosmic howling of the night wind, which sometimes roars in lamentation, sometimes blusters stormily.”

So, what to make of the first six Sonatas? Laments, storms certainly. Studies in drama and dispersion. Historically, post-Medtner/Rachmaninov/Scriabin/Stanchinsky “poems of life”, contemporary with Roslavets, Prokofiev’s Third to Fifth, and the original 1920 draft of Miaskovsky’s Third. Stylistically, a moody turmoil of shreds and influences variously German (Feinberg studied with Taneyev’s former student Nikolai Shilyaev, to whom he dedicated the A-major First Sonata) … contemporary French and Russian (albeit broadly resistant to Scriabin-Roslavets syntheticism) … looking to the Baroque and Romanticism, the immediately present (Berg’s Sonata, Schoenberg’s Opus 11 Pieces?), the future (a transient Messiaen-like luminosity some years ahead of the Frenchman). Linguistically chromatic, motivic, metamorphic, cyclic. Pianistically, an über mix of Liszt, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, taking player and listener to the edge, complex in verbal allusions, unforgiving in physical expectation.

Unremitting and unsparing, “consigned to the tomb” before partially resurfacing in the First Concerto, the Third Sonata in G/G-sharp minor (1916-17, printed in 1974),  is a powerful, tumultuous conception, overwhelmingly tensioned in argument and texture, imperiously laid out for the instrument. Whatever its structural unwieldiness and Feinberg’s reservations, it’s baffling that it is not established repertory, or, at very least, a high-profile competition test piece. Incorporating a central funeral march, it’s monumental, thrilling, memorable. Music to sort out knights and princes, a young man in his mid-twenties at full tilt. “Impetuoso, languido, inquieto, imperioso, luminoso, cantando, tumultuoso, volando, tenebroso, precipitatemente, lamentoso” … the ocean of Feinberg’s youth. Like the E-minor Fifth Sonata (1920-21), the E-flat minor Fourth (1918), inscribed to Miaskovsky (who later dedicated his own Fourth Sonata to Feinberg), journeys from the enigmatic to the explosive, from an opening that’s like a locomotive under wraps, waiting, steaming, panting, to pages of opal-ed ornament and starry filigree. Gazing back fleetingly to the beginning, it’s suddenly gone, sky dissolving into earth, light into darkness, all breath extinguished.

Versed and cultured, Feinberg’s literary taste (evidenced in his songs) was courtly. Among his earliest friends was Marina Tsvetaeva – Pasternak’s “most Russian poet of us all.” The Fourth Sonata bears no epigraph, but, according to Alexandrov, was inspired by Fyodor Tyutchev’s Night Wind (1832), the source of Medtner’s 1911 Sonata Opus 25/2 dedicated to Rachmaninov. “Why moan, why wail you, wind of night, With such despair, such frenzied madness?”. Two quotations were to grace the Sixth Sonata (1923) – a work Feinberg, representing the fledgling USSR, played at the 1925 ISCM Chamber Festival in Venice, in a programme rounded off by Janáček’s First String Quartet. Initially, lines from Oswald Spengler’s in-vogue book The Decline of the West (1918): “dread symbol of the flow of time, the chimes of countless clock towers that echo day and night over Western Europe are perhaps the most wonderful expression of which a historical world-feeling is capable.” Latterly, in the 1930s, out of political prudence, Tyutchev’s Insomnia (1829), a substitution retained in the 1978 Soviet reprint: “Monotonous dying of the hours: midnight is telling a tedious tale in a foreign language we can’t fail to recognise as ours. Who can claim it never befell him to hear time’s muffled groans stab his soul at night, the drone, when all’s quiet, of a prescient farewell?”.

Not everyone in Venice warmed to the tectonics of the piece. “A small convulsion”; “internalised music [lacking] the ability to communicate.” A century on, its thirteen-minute trajectory impresses differently. Here, in glowing, humming, percussive, panther-like, full-compass glory, is a composer-pianist not afraid of repetition or recollection, willing to travel roads of modal flux. In the “misterioso/precipitato” introduction he juxtaposes germinal falling fourths (Beethoven/Mahler), Dante-esque tritones (Liszt), and interlocked transpositions of the B-A-C-H cipher (registral transfer disembodying each pitch). In the Largo funèbre coda he farewells us in a sensual balm of low-register expressively penetrating B-major, the sepulchral last B of the Liszt Sonata, the doomed B’s of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and ‘Pathétique’, re-focussed in deep space.

BIS released the first intégrale of the canon in 2003-04, shared between Nikolaos Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau, both previously students in Russia of Malinin and Olga Lartshenko. Marc-André Hamelin – with a Hyperion track record including the complete sonatas of Scriabin and Medtner – takes up the cause sweepingly, clinical, analytical attention to the text underlying the message. Pondering Feinberg’s values and the music’s voltage, I wonder though if he’s a touch cool? Too many contained flames and neatly packaged cameos? Deliberation before abandonment? Turn to the (coarser engineered) BIS version, and the chemistry is another experience – passion and imagination in the raw, millisecond wisps of smoke and fantasy, the music on a rampant ride, intimacy and projection, mystery and credo, mythology and bite balanced across the spectrum. Less cerebral than climactic, feeling before forensics.

The opening of the First Sonata, on paper a virginally voiced fabric (Allegro vivace in the first edition, Allegro in the 1957 revision), illustrates the scenarios on offer. In Samaltanos’s perception, a reverie of innuendo and liberated caprice. In Hamelin’s, a pre-meditated delineation literalised more than ruminative. “One should not merely live and feel in art”, Feinberg maintained, “one has to live through a great deal and endure a great deal.” A very Russian sentiment. There are arresting landmarks in Hamelin’s cycle, Fourth Sonata not least … But that he’s a performer prone to be too cushioned, too comfortable, a city story-teller more than a bard of the steppes, is a spectre that haunts.

For the ‘Prélude’ of the Third he reverts to the composer’s less dense 1916 draft (IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library), a calligraphically delicate manuscript devoid of tempo or dynamics – for which we are otherwise dependent on Alexandrov’s elaborated 1969 revision comprising the Moscow first edition: “Misure diverse. Lento assai, ma sempre inquieto e rubato molto”. In these Slavic paragraphs Sirodeau, relishing the ‘restless/rubato‘ element, is the more energised advocate (3:25 against 4:39), his surging ‘green-white’ currents akin to an Aivazovsky marine canvas. In the Finale (Feinberg’s biggest sonata design), he similarly drives on, in places suggestively more organic – though Hamelin makes the Schumannesque facets (old Tsarist hunting ground) tell effectively. Globally, Sirodeau takes a less precipitous approach to the Second and Sixth Sonatas (14:55 against Hamelin’s sparodically belligerent 13:05). Samaltanos, going for the jugular, is brisker in the Fourth and Fifth (8:18 against 10:38).

“The world beyond: a dream, to see in a dream” (Tsvetaeva). Feinberg … who lived fugues and Sonatas, books, words and poems, teacher by day, spirit traveller by night … whose pianistic eminence in Soviet society cost him his creative identity. Hamelin, whatever the caveats, takes us through the door. Hyperion CDA68233.