Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International
March 2020

Marc-André Hamelin’s recording of Samuil Feinberg’s first six piano sonatas, with a second volume to come, offers the sternest competition imaginable to the set of the complete sonatas, also in two separate volumes, made by Nikolaos Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau, who split the sonatas between them in this project. Colin Clarke reviewed their first six sonatas on BIS CD-1413 with admiration and I reviewed sonatas seven to twelve similarly. The difference, obviously, lies in the fact that Hamelin is armed singly and has the technical and expressive armour necessary to traverse the whole corpus of sonatas, from the seemingly quiescent but never anodyne first two sonatas onwards via the intense turbulence of many of the remaining works in the cycle.

There is another difference and that is textual. Hamelin has recorded, where available, modified revisions, such as the very slightly modified 1957 revision of the 1915 First Sonata, first published in 1924. This is especially important in the case of the Third Sonata where Hamelin sources Feinberg’s original manuscript, not Anatoly Alexandrov’s 1969 revision which was incorporated in the complete edition. If the revisions of Sonatas 1 and 2 are relatively small—No 2 is merely the inclusion of a repeat of the exposition—this is more serious, given Alexandrov’s wholesale reworking of the opening movement.

His Op 1 opens gently, like one of his famed transcriptions, before admitting some, but not overmuch, astringency. In the main this is Feinberg at his most ingratiating and limpid in a seven-minute entrée into sonata writing. There’s a similar elegance in No 2, which was composed the following year, though its sense of colour and its absorption of elements of Medtner and Scriabin’s writing is more pronounced. Still, nothing quite prepares one for the eruptions of the third sonata of 1916-17. Its opening Prélude is atmospheric but the forbidding and foreboding Funeral March that follows generates a real charge. It prefaces a near-quarter-hour Sonate: Allegro appassionato, a finale that ferments unceasing turbulence and embodies a crazed fugato. No wonder that Feinberg claimed, later in life, in the 1950s, that this sonata ‘did not exist’ in omitting it from his sonata worklist.

The following year he completed Sonata No 4, a ten-minute piece in his favoured single-movement format. Dedicated to Nikolai Myaskovsky and inspired by poem called Night Wind this is a study in intensity; in its incremental build-up and lessening, as well as, one assumes, something of a musico-poetic analogue. In the less febrile Fifth sonata its impressionistic elements and its Scriabinesque complexities are provided an admirable bullet-proof structure in which to function. In both these sonatas Hamelin takes considerably more time than Samaltanos. His propensity for the horizontal rather than the more jagged vertical responses of the Greek pianist offers a divergent way of approaching these sonatas.

Sonata No 6 split the critics when it was premièred by the composer in Venice in 1925. Chordally dense, with rapid shifts of mood and texture, the music drive inexorably onwards. Reflective stasis interrupts this and the sonata ends rather quizzically and slowly; logically, perhaps, but maybe implying something is emotively unresolved.

Hamelin powerfully resolves all the technical complications and dramatic conflicts embedded in these intense works. He has been served by a splendid Teldex studio recording and his formidable readings offer much both to disquiet and, more fugitively, to move.