'In this recording of all Feinberg's transcriptions, Martin Roscoe's interpretations reflect both the sensitivity behind the undertaking and the spirit behind the music' (Gramophone)
'Martin Roscoe's warm, lyrical playing makes this a most rewarding release' (Classic FM Magazine)
'In sum, those who have been following Hyperion's series of Bach piano transcriptions should find this a splendid continuation. Since the complete run of Feinbergised Bach couldn't be accommodated on one disc, Hyperion has placed the concerto on a second - but the set is priced as a single CD. It's an act of generosity that other labels would be wise to imitate' (Fanfare, USA)
|Thirteen Chorale Preludes|
This fourth volume in our series of Bach transcriptions brings the first recording of the complete works in the genre by the hugely neglected figure of Samuil Feinberg. Feinberg belongs firmly in the grand tradition of the 19th-century pianist/composer that stretches from Chopin to Godowsky via Liszt and Busoni. Unfortunately his modernist compositional tendencies and the fact that he was Jewish led to his being sidelined within the Soviet regime, his ‘elitist’ music being rarely performed and his performing career constrained within the USSR. It is likely that his transcriptions were a creative response to the restrictions placed on his original music; no one could deny Bach his rightful place in the musical world and his organ music, from which all these works originated, was little known in Russia. No doubt Feinberg, the virtuoso, was also fascinated with the challenges of recreating the works pianistically as had Busoni before him, and it is to this composer that Feinberg’s transcriptional style can most easily be compared.
His earliest transcription, the Vivaldi/Bach concerto, is also his most superficially virtuosic; it’s interesting that thereafter his choice of music tends to come from Bach’s later output where his polyphony and harmonic language is at its most complex. These are magnificent realizations of works often still too little known in their original guise which will fascinate both for their pianistic ingenuity and their intrinsic musical worth.
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If this set of Bach transcriptions constitutes a prodigious discovery in an area already full of richness, immediately earning a place among the most magnificent triumphs of the genre, all of these works also shed indispensable light on our knowledge of a great composer and performer, Samuil Feinberg. With these transcriptions an entire world and an entire era are re-opened. If Feinberg was a phenomenon, this is essentially because of the interaction of his different creative facets – as composer, transcriber, pianist, musical theorist and teacher, activities that to Feinberg were inseparable from each other. Although, in the majority of these activities, it seems that Feinberg’s stylistic options were determined at an early stage, his career as a composer was to be much more paradoxical and contradictory. This cannot be explained merely by the uncertainties of Russian and Soviet history; at first he experimented with a bold style, following in the footsteps of Scriabin and Prokofiev, and then he tried to find an expressive escape from different aspects of the mid-twentieth-century musical crisis by means of a curious, romanticized neoclassicism which was, at times, less convincing.
Samuil Feinberg was born in Odessa on 26 May 1890, and his family soon moved to Moscow; he studied the piano with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory and composition privately with Nikolai Zhiliayev (a pupil of Taneyev). Despite his early success as a pianist and a relentless study of new repertoire, Feinberg made a serious attempt to become a professional performing pianist only after the revolution of 1917. Previously his work as a composer had taken the upper hand, a state of affairs which continued until roughly 1925. His Sixth Piano Sonata enjoyed great success at the Venice Contemporary Music Festival in September 1925, an event which featured the majority of musical celebrities of the time; this was also the year in which his work as a concert pianist took off internationally, especially in the German-speaking countries. From 1922 he had also taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Unfortunately, after the 1930s, the Stalinist developments in the USSR prevented him from leaving his homeland except to serve on the juries of international competitions, such as the Brussels Competition in 1938. He also had to refrain from performing his earliest works – which could hardly be said to conform to the criteria of Socialist Realism – and, even though he maintained his creative independence, from the late 1930s he gradually modified his style and took a passionate interest in transcriptions. Nonetheless, he remained a celebrated pianist in his own country, and performed incredible complete cycles of Scriabin, Beethoven and Bach. During the Second World War, like many other Soviet artists, he was evacuated to the Caucasus and Central Asia and subsequently, after a few ephemeral successes, he was blacklisted by the famous Zhdanov affair in 1948, still feeling threatened because he was Jewish. In 1956, following health problems, he put an end to his public performing career as a pianist (which had in any case been significantly compromised by the events of 1948). It was after this, however, that he made the majority of his recordings, which continued until the very end of his life. He passed away on 22 October 1962.
When we think of transcriptions of Bach’s organ music, our thoughts tend to turn initially to Busoni. In fact numerous other composers and pianists both preceded and succeeded Busoni: his most famous predecessor was certainly Liszt and his most recent successor was Kurtág. When, in 1913, the young Samuil Feinberg made his first trip outside Russia, to Berlin, he nurtured the hope of meeting Busoni and of possibly becoming his pupil. (Busoni was famous in Moscow as a pianist and teacher – having taught in the city – and, equally, as a composer and philosopher, largely because of his book Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, which had been warmly received by young Russian composers such as Arthur Lourié.) Unfortunately for history, and for Feinberg, the great maestro was not in Berlin during these weeks in the spring of 1913, and Feinberg had to be content with auditions for Schnabel and Lamond.
Even at this early age Feinberg had the entire Well-Tempered Clavier in his repertoire, and he had also impressed everybody when he left the Moscow Conservatory by presenting the ‘48’ in public, an achievement that he repeated in 1914 and on various later occasions before finally being able to record them around 1960.
Feinberg knew a large number of transcriptions of Bach’s organ works when he decided to make his own contribution to what might almost be considered a genre in its own right. It would seem, despite everything, that Feinberg started his great series of transcriptions not with the Chorale Preludes but with the Concerto by Vivaldi/Bach, thus beginning in this first ‘attempt’ with a work that was already in transcribed form. This could hardly have been a coincidence.
We know that Feinberg often regretted not having had the opportunity to study and play the organ. In the course of his trips to Germany he was keen to attend organ concerts given on the historic instruments at various churches. His transcriptions of works by Bach were conceived initially for his own personal use, and were then revised and published with more didactic purposes in mind. (It should be noted that Feinberg wrote his last transcription in 1961 – for piano duet and not included on this recording – of the chorale prelude Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV705, for inclusion in his Album for Children which was published after his death.)
Beyond Feinberg’s own growing interest in all kinds of transcription (he published works based on Beethoven and old Italian composers, as well as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Borodin), the particular position occupied by Bach transcriptions from the organ to the piano – a genre that unites so many different composers – seems to have acquired an additional significance in Russia from the fact that Russian Orthodox churches were not equipped with organs, and thus very few churches in the country, those of other religions, were so provided. For this reason it was virtually a necessity for the repertoire to pass from the organ to the piano if it was to be heard, especially in those days when there was no access to recordings. Formerly, transcriptions had the role of disseminating music, a task now assumed by recordings. Then, that practice gradually assumed the form of an artistic re-evaluation.
What did Feinberg himself make of this? The text that follows, which deals with transcriptions in general, is found at the start of Feinberg’s book Pianism as an Art. It deals immediately with a problem that has provoked much critical debate and which was also dealt with by Stravinsky in his book Poétique musicale: the relationship between interpreter and composer, and the limits that the former must impose upon himself with respect to the text that he is interpreting. From there, Feinberg touches briefly upon the exception that is formed by the transcription as a genre:
We should, however, immediately mention that the purpose of a piano or other transcription is somewhat different from an editorial correction of the presentation. Transcription leads to deeper modifications that somewhat deviate from the exact adherence to the author’s original. Such changes are logically caused by the features of another instrument or instrumentation system. Thus, some changes in the text are unavoidable in a transcription. However, it is difficult to find an example of a successful intervention of a performer into the notes of a composer. The reality of concert performances and quite often of editions by famous pianists demonstrates that even a small deviation from the author’s text, addition of even one extra note into a chord, a change in figuration or other detail typically distort the composer’s intentions. Most frequently such ‘improvements’ show that performer does not have the complete grasp of the author’s style.
Thus the only area where a pianist has the right to introduce creative corrections to the author’s style is that of transcriptions and arrangements. However, even in this domain one should avoid unnecessary deviations, extraneous rhetoric of invented passages and ornaments that violate the composer’s style. The goal of a transcription is to express the character of the sound of the original by other means while retaining the style of the composition as much as possible. This is impossible to accomplish mechanically. One has to know well the possibilities of his instrument, as well as find creatively the adequate forms of presentation and new means of expression to shed light on the composer’s intentions. The new avenues of presentation and expression are needed solely in order to preserve, not break apart the very concept of the work.
No matter how we treat transcriptions and arrangements for other instruments it is impossible to deny that many examples of this genre have the right to exist and are themselves a special kind of creative interpretation. There is also no doubt that the border that separates composition and performance occupies to a certain extent the domain of the composer’s art. (Translated into English by Lenya Ryzhik and Stephen Emerson)
A little later, in the chapter on ‘The composer and interpreter’, in a paragraph concerning the role of the composer’s markings, Feinberg emphasizes how wrong it would be to judge the playing style that Bach might have had on the basis of the scarcity of performance markings in his works (a scarcity that, as we know, was quite normal at the time). In fact, Feinberg supported a ‘natural’, fluent and free playing style in Bach, dependent only on the intrinsic logic of the music, and making the listener aware of its ‘original’ ebb and flow. He was no supporter of the interpretative practices that held sway in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and yet neither was he in favour of an exhaustive and ‘scientific’ return to the source material – an approach that was then just starting to break through and that had not yet attained the clarity and suppleness of modern baroque performance practice. He would surely have been surprised to learn how much a new generation of baroque interpreters managed to instil life and breath into a vast swathe of musical history, in the process (fortunately for us) going well beyond their original historical period and stylistic criteria.
Elsewhere, in various texts, Feinberg correctly emphasized that the passage of time and of history would never again permit us to consider music of a given era without taking account all that might have existed since, whether we like it or not. Similarly, in the early twenty-first century we cannot listen to Feinberg’s recordings as a pianist, or to his transcriptions, in the way we might have done fifty years ago. Generally, the transcription as a genre seems to have been a phenomenon of a particular epoch but, at the same time, both its essential character and its application not only survived but returned in a new, evolved form; listening to transcriptions from the past is enriched by our modern perceptions.
Despite the thundering impact that it normally makes at first listening, the Concerto in A minor [after Vivaldi], BWV593 is probably the only one of these transcriptions that in places gives the impression of obsolescence and a certain pianistic grandiloquence. Our thoughts turn to the light and transparent sonority of Vivaldi’s original instrumental music, rather than to Bach’s organ transcription, and this creates expectations that are hardly compatible with the resulting sound of this piano transcription. Despite this, Feinberg here (and indeed later in the other pieces) found a convincing solution to certain problems inherent in the different natures of the organ and the piano – both in terms of sonority and also on a technical, practical level. For example, the alternating tutti and solo passages in various sequences – defined conveniently on the organ by changes of register – are rendered by Feinberg not only by means of dynamics but also by changes of articulation (for instance by the use of staccato in the solo passages), or by a lightening (or thickening) of the harmonic texture. This last solution is used in a special way in the sublime Adagio to distinguish between the translucent upper voices and the accompanying alto lines, here set in warmer relief – an effect Feinberg achieves harmonically with added sixths, thirds or tenths, by doublings or displacement an octave down. Feinberg thus positions himself very clearly in the matter of transcribing or adapting or rewriting or completely recreating the piece, and in this regard he is undeniably close to Bach’s transcription. Otherwise, apart from the essential indications of dynamics, articulation and phrasing, he uses a procedure that he was often to adopt in his later transcriptions: the ‘clear’ and full writing out of ornaments such as mordants and trills, doubtless for reasons connected with his teaching.
Feinberg also articulated his options concerning Bach transcriptions in an article entitled The Pianist’s Mastery:
What is fairest in a transcription? To force oneself to preserve the original text as precisely as possible – in the prior knowledge that, on the piano, an organ work’s expression will be significantly reduced? Or to try to find a maximum of light and shade, to create a sort of pianistic equivalent of the organ’s power, even if that implies an inevitable dose of enrichment and addition to what had originally been written? In each different situation, everything depends on the gifts and the artistic initiative of the contemporary pianist or composer who is preparing a transcription of a work by Bach. In other words, one might preserve the original text of a work almost completely – and, at the same time, smother the charm of the original in such a half-transcription. Or one might rework the original, creating a pianistic equivalent of it – and, despite everything, in so doing reveal the greatness of Bach’s music all the more strongly. (Translated into English by Andrew Barnett)
Despite everything, if we compare Liszt’s and Feinberg’s versions of the great Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548, it would initially appear that both were of the more literal and objective type: neither transcription suggests a tempo, and neither provides expressive indications or dynamics; this is the only one of Feinberg’s transcriptions to lack these instructions. In fact it is Liszt’s version that is more ascetic. Even for Feinberg, however, this is still a curious evolution, a bending of his conceptions in what was to be his very last Bach transcription.
In the great cycle of thirteen Chorale Preludes that he worked on gradually through the 1920s and 1930s, Feinberg showed that he was fully aware of the underlying musical ‘programme’ of each piece, and this affected the musical ‘spacing’ that he envisaged in each case. The presentation of the cantus firmus is carefully considered and he always imagined different registrations – even if it was usual not to change registration during a performance of the original on the organ. Feinberg proves to be very attentive to Bach’s occasional indications – for instance in BWV650 in G major, where the cantus firmus is marked Pedal 4 Fuss, indicating in practice that it would sound an octave higher than the normal pedal line.
Two of the chorales offer us the chance to compare Feinberg’s transcriptions with those of Busoni: BWV665 in E minor, and BWV659 in G minor. In the latter piece we find a large number of different choices in the two versions. The tempo is Adagio in Busoni’s transcription, followed by numerous character indications, and Largo in Feinberg’s, and this qualified only by the word espressivo. As for dynamics, Busoni marks the whole piece piano (with the suggestion to play una corda except during the cantus firmus passages), while Feinberg suggests a basic pianissimo dynamic with numerous small crescendi and decrescendi. In terms of musical ‘breathing’, Busoni insists that there should be no rallentando at the entry of the cantus firmus; Feinberg suggests one not there but instead at the end of each sequence. As for phrasing and articulation, Busoni suggests very little: a simple legato, albeit with indications of pedal; Feinberg insists on a constant legatissimo with numerous phrase markings but no pedal. The two transcribers thus seem to have envisaged widely divergent scenarios. Despite this, however, there are other aspects in which the composers are much closer together.
The Largo in A minor from Trio Sonata No 5, BWV529 represents an extreme example of the rewriting that Feinberg began with the Concerto by Vivaldi. The harmonic additions are very frequent, and make the piece seem more like a fantasy on Bach’s original – as has been pointed out by the Russian musicologist Leonid Roizman. Indeed, this piece resembles the Busoni of the Chaconne for solo violin, not only in its harmonic and textural inventiveness but also in the great disparity and the change of scope between the original and the adaptation. In Busoni’s case, a piece for solo violin was turned into a grandiose piano piece, akin to his transciptions of Bach’s large-scale organ works. In Feinberg’s case, whereas all the other transcriptions testify to a certain reduction of proportions and musical scale compared with the original, this one is lent a much more festive aspect than the original, which is rather intimate in character and was not originally destined to be played on a large organ.
The similarity that we cannot fail to notice with Busoni might be more profound than we suspect, as is suggested by an examination of their work as composers, their harmonic research, the nature of their piano writing in their original compositions, and even their work as performers and their musicological writings. (The fact that their visionary work as composers has in each case recently been re-evaluated by comparison with the rest of their legacy is also a strange and interesting coincidence.)
The type of writing generally used by Feinberg in all of his piano music – spacious, favouring the simultaneous use of distant registers, with constant contrasts – also finds an eloquent and inspirational application in these transcriptions, giving them henceforth a life of their own.
Christophe Sirodeau © 2004
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