Richard Hanlon
MusicWeb International
April 2020

‘Perhaps he felt that he’d created something so excessive that most pianists wouldn’t touch it.’ So says the fearsome fifty-fingered piano colossus that is Marc-André Hamelin about Samuil Feinberg’s third sonata, a work consigned to oblivion for generations, at least in its original form which Hamelin gives here; in its published guise it was apparently heavily edited by Feinberg’s friend Anatoly Alexandrov, especially its terse opening Prélude . I fail to believe that any reader remotely interested in piano music would not respond to this extraordinary work, nor indeed to its smaller (in duration if not quality) siblings on this fascinating, frequently jaw-dropping disc. I knew a bit about Feinberg as a greatly admired virtuoso and arranger—I’d heard his Bach transcriptions (also on Hyperion), but I’d never heard a note of his own music. If late Scriabin has always fired my imagination and curiosity about those composers who took his aesthetic arguably a little further (Roslavets, Alexandrov himself, Protopopov among them), these six sonatas provide a massive paradigm shift in one’s understanding and appreciation of that particular zeitgeist. I feel rather ashamed not to have sought them out in the past- Feinberg wrote a dozen sonatas in all and the complete set was issued across two extremely well received BIS discs (way back in 2004) in a cycle shared by Nikolaos Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau. I have heard neither at the time of writing—but I fully concur with my colleague Colin Clarke’s comments about the music of the first six sonatas, although I guess M. Sirodeau recorded the Alexandrov edition of the third sonata rather than the newly discovered original manuscript to which Hamelin treats us here.

Nicolo-Alexander Figowy’s succinct notes trace Feinberg’s training—he was evidently a prodigy who had already learnt Bach’s ‘48’ by heart as a student. He was noted for his sensitive, serious approach to the piano repertoire (there is a legendary recording of Book 1 of the Bach available on YouTube which amply confirms this) and if one takes that into account the listener is utterly unprepared for the extraordinary virtuosity required to pull any one of these six amazing sonatas out of the fire. But what impresses me most about all the music on this issue is how incredibly assured and pianistic each of these sonatas are, notwithstanding their complexity and Feinberg’s obsessive focus on the lower register of the keyboard. Encountering the three movements of the third sonata, especially as played by Hamelin on this disc, listeners might be forgiven for thinking that this is as far as virtuosic, coherent piano writing can go. After a long pause (you’ll need one, believe me) one is astonished to even more detail and intricacy in the three works which follow, a combination of virtuosity and expressivity which tests Hamelin to the max. Inevitably he’s more than equal to their singular demands. And then some …

If late Scriabin is the starting point for Feinberg, one can sense unfettered ambition in the first sonata of 1915 (the year Scriabin died), a clear statement of intent. Its seven minutes are absolutely crammed with ideas. A rather Chopinesque theme is developed and quickly evolves into something more obviously Russian, touched perhaps by Rachmaninov or even Medtner. By 1:20 much has happened already but the melodic and harmonic threads begin to fray a little. These fibres are woven ever more subtly into the grand arc of the entire span. Hamelin amplifies little rhythmic interruptions. Feinberg finds almost claustrophobic levels of detail which adds real depth to perspective of the music, rendering it almost three dimensional. The final bars are rapturous until the gruff chordal mangling of the original theme which constitutes a conclusion which is as shocking as it is summary. Feinberg had to start somewhere, and the references to his peers and masters are hardly unexpected, but even in this first sonata it sounds like he’s trying to exorcise these ghosts. It’s as though that final gesture is saying ‘so much for all that’ (or something less polite).

In fact the second sonata represents a relatively a cautious departure from the anchor laid down by its predecessor. The descending shape with which it opens is still recognisably of its moment but odd atonal hints creep into the argument rather swiftly, Brief pauses between phrases allow a little air. This music could not have been imagined by an individual who wasn’t a virtuoso. Ideas repeat, twist, tease, gnaw and jar. There are notes everywhere, snowflakes in a blizzard. The insistent repetitions and variation of ideas enable the listener to navigate. At 5:30 Feinberg presents a chromatic sequence which hints more firmly at the work’s destination. Soon afterwards, familiar notes are released from their established moorings and are left to fend for themselves. The initial thematic idea returns at 7:13, leaving one to wallow in this peculiar, alluring music.

Hamelin’s performance of the Olympian third sonata banishes for good the occasionally repeated trope about this remarkable player being a technical genius who at times lacks imaginative flair. As I have mentioned this work obviously riled Feinberg for some reason but here it finds its moment courtesy of a heroic, convinced advocate. It is the only sonata with multiple movements of the six on this disc (nos 7, 8 & 12 are also tripartite affairs). Its opening Prélude kicks off with another moody descending figure, which Feinberg adorns and tinkers with as it reoccurs in rising modulations. Bass figures go around the houses rhythmically and harmonically. There is an omnipresent spirit of fantasy and spontaneity in Hamelin’s playing. The Hyperion team have clearly pulled all the stops out in their recording—sample the passage between 2:57 and 3:20 as a taster. In a structural sense the following Marche funèbre is far removed from what one might expect from such a title. There is plenty of hallucinatory gloom, mind; it’s heavy in the bass, but the panel’s coherence only really clarifies for the listener (this one at least) after three or four plays. The cascades of sound in the mf/f dynamic range (I suspect—I have no score) are shattered by huge chords from 3:35. This is as troubling, ominous music as I have ever heard from this era, no exaggeration. Hamelin’s sincerity and seriousness of purpose leap from the speakers in the second half of this movement. The inevitability of its last twenty seconds is paradoxically unexpected. The huge finale is labelled Sonate: Allegro appassionato. At 14:35 it is the biggest single span of music on this disc. It is tempestuous and terse, yet its form seems oddly familiar. A phrase at 1:37 is conspicuous by its relative tenderness and regularity. It is varied, extended, toyed with. In time it seems like Hamelin has grown several more hands. One is exhausted by the profusion of its incident already by 2:55 when a tiny staccato interjection triggers even more. I suspect I have written more listening notes for this span of music than any other I have covered as a critic. Reading through them repeatedly though becomes an increasingly futile exercise. This movement ravishes with its pointillistic detail and complex, seductive beauty. It sounds like a completely different ‘thing’ every time I hear it. Curious readers will make what they will of this—but I would be surprised if those with far more technical understanding than I didn’t throw up their hands in disbelief if they haven’t encountered Feinberg’s third sonata in the past. Much as I have always enjoyed the music of Roslavets, for example, it rather pales beside work which incorporates monumentality such as this. Obviously I’m no composer, merely an enthusiast, but this work strikes me as a template for perfect art: an utterly original attempt to harness waves of Dionysian intensity within an Apollonian framework of cogency and flow.

The humble listener could well assume that there’s nowhere for Feinberg to go after the third sonata; musing on the HameIin quote at the outset of this review one might speculate if this, in fact, may have been his reason for bottom-drawering it and starting again. The temptation for the listener is to assume the same. It’s what I did at the age of thirteen when a friendly neighbour lent me his The Songs Of Leonard Cohen LP. How could he possibly improve on the sequence of songs on side one? It was four years before I played side two, which meant I missed out on So Long, Marianne and the rest. Believe me, Feinberg has much, much more to say. He certainly doesn’t hold back.

In the compressed fourth sonata, Feinberg seems to apply a more systematic approach to his seemingly diffuse materials. In this work his wild patternings seem to be constrained within a strange elegance. Abrupt changes of mood begin to tally. At 1:54 a tiny melody simultaneously suggests jazz, orientalism and Ravel. Brutal exchanges between treble and bass at 3:15 are thrilling, among the most amazing sounds I ever have heard from a piano. Hamelin arguably doesn’t just play this music, he physically becomes it. I know he has been interested in Feinberg for many years, but it is almost inconceivable that music which is prone to such abruptness could emerge with such fluency in anybody else’s hands. This work is also heavily dependent upon the bass register, and Hamelin teases impossibly dark hues from his resilient instrument. He invents colours that Feinberg patented in his darkest dreams. The last minute incorporates a crazed bass stampede, it ends with a breath, a squiggle, another breath and stop. The ten brief minutes of this sonata is a controlled white-knuckle ride which seems to last a lifetime.

The fifth sonata is a gentler, more probing beast which cuts a more impressionistic jib, although it never embodies any real sense of serenity and one constantly suspects something weird is just around the corner, not least due to the clarity of Hamelin’s story-telling and his unerring ability in suddenly telegraphing the ominous. (The huge chord at 1:44 is an example). This work seems barer, more pared-down but it teems with Bosch-like hyperactivity below and above its surfaces. The passage from 4:30 epitomises Feinberg’s style. From 6:05 its initial idea re-emerges, celestial and consolatory while at 8:00 a weird, rising three note pedal seems to be keeping the whole edifice upright. A creepily enchanting idea magically materialises at 9:13 from the middle register of one of three instruments Hamelin seems to be playing simultaneously. The soft chord which ends the piece seems almost conventional, and counterintuitively in this context, is utterly revolutionary.

At thirteen minutes the superb sixth sonata distils the essences which Feinberg has drawn from the adventures and experiments he has led in producing its five predecessors. Its opening ideas are stitched together at great speed and tumble down upon each other, amid extensive harmonic activity. These shapes are succinct, their repetitions cut deep although they neither nag nor insist—rather they amplify and decorate. There are hints of sunken, ancient palaces rather than cathedrals. Yet this is identifiably Russian music. At times pace and mood both threaten to lighten but they never do; Feinberg instead plumbs yet more unfathomable depths. At 7:39 the exchanges between enigmatic chords and pairs of gentle notes seem simple on the face of it, yet they sound simultaneously profound given what has preceded them. By 10:00 Hamelin’s levels of volume and virtuosity have once again ‘gone up to eleven’. Afterwards, there is only quietude left, silent constellations and shooting stars. The remaining fibres of inspiration are dragged, exhausted and wan, to the sonata’s conclusion which involves an enigmatic, Cyril Scott-like peroration and an endless single note.

I could make a good aesthetic case for issuing these sonatas on six individual discs. As previous reviewers of this repertoire have pointed out, Feinberg’s sonatas each demand a discrete individual experience and long reflection. Excessive and intensive exposure to Feinberg could well trigger fever—and it’s really not the best time to be getting one of those. Hamelin plays out of his skin here, even by his superhuman standards, in music which utterly demands it. Arne Akselberg and Andrew Keener have achieved a consistently realistic, inviting recorded sound for repertoire which at times seems quite untameable. And there is more music on this single disc in terms of both quantity and quality than in many multi-disc collections I could mention. I will be fit and available to acquire Volume Two of Hamelin’s Feinberg, hopefully, by 2025. By then one hopes scientists will have found the antidote to the dizziness and hyperbole triggered in this critic by Volume One.