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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Samuel Feinberg, Part 1

Samuel Feinberg and I have had some trouble getting together. I had his 1959 complete set of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier but couldn't find it when I started reviewing the WTC Books. At some point I decided to order it, but that turned out to be a difficult proposition. So I just put myself on hold concerning the matter, figuring that the set would enter my life through some means/source. And that's what happened last week in the used bins at a local record store. Although it's hard to imagine why anyone would trade in the Feinberg set, that person has my strong appreciation for the transaction.

This 4-cd set is on the Russian Disc label with a catalog number of 15013 (Also available on Russian Disc 16231, see cover below). It was released in 1994 and documents recording sessions held in Moscow in 1959. There are a host of Bach enthusiasts who swear by Feinberg's Bach performances, citing the singing and devotional qualities of his interpretations. I would just add that Feinberg tends to take many liberties with tempo and projection which some might well consider fascinating and highly expressive while others would call these liberties disruptive to what they feel is the natural flow of the music. Prior to starting the review process, I listened to the Feinberg set while doing a host of domestic chores. All I'll say at this point is that I frequently left those tasks and zoomed into the living room as if Feinberg was beckoning me to join him and Bach.

Russian Disc 16231

I'm going to go through each of Feinberg's Preludes & Fugues, comparing his performances to the best piano versions I have available; now and then, I'll also be referring to magical harpsichord readings.

Prelude in C Major – I've commented in the past that this prelude needs some interpretation; otherwise, it's not much more than a pleasant series of scales. No artist on record provides a more expressive reading than Feinberg. He bends tempo and volume at will, and I love every second of it. Just as expressive as Tureck, Feinberg also invests the prelude with some of Gulda's drive to the finish line. In a sense, Tureck goes to the sides, Gulda goes forward, and Feinberg takes all directions. I do believe I prefer the Feinberg to these other two exceptional readings. This is a great beginning.

Fugue in C Major – The great beginning continues with Feinberg's C Major Fugue. Grounded on stretto and inevitability, this fugue has been superbly represented by Gould and Richter. Feinberg joins them with a reading loaded with nuances. He has the courage and artistry to soften and slow down dramatically without losing any momentum; he gains poetry and contrast.

Prelude in C minor – All great beginnings come to an end, and the C minor Prelude finds Feinberg more than meeting his match in Glenn Gould. The C minor is one of Gould's magical Bach interpretations. With staccato, a sinister atmosphere, and the best build-up of tension I've heard in this work, Gould makes this a two-climax prelude of great distinction. Feinberg is like a bullet compared to Gould; I admire the technique and the feeling that can be absorbed within it, but he's just too fast to convey the degree of riches that Gould finds in the score. However, Feinberg is certainly competitive with the other faster versions on record.

Fugue in C minor – Feinberg takes the powerful approach, and there's nothing wrong there. Richter does likewise and is one of my favorite performances. I do find that Feinberg's faster tempo doesn't give him the luxury of being as detailed as Richter. Still, it's an exciting and worthy performance.

Prelude in C sharp major – In addition to having a pristine nature, the prelude abounds with youthful joy and urgency. Among piano versions, I've preferred Hewitt's dreamy and mysterious reading, and Tureck's highly incisive and stark performance. Feinberg does have all the basic ingredients on display, but high levels of urgency, mystery, and incisiveness are not present. This is another competitive performance not rivaling the best.

Fugue in C sharp major – As joyful as its partner, the fugue also has a nostalgic element which blends beautifully into the music's fabric. Great performances range from Schiff's exquisitely delicate and expansive journey to pristine lands to Gulda's detailed and inevitable march to the finish line. There are also plenty of other excellent versions as well. Unfortunately, Feinberg's performance is not competitive. He's fast, probably too fast and sounds rushed at times. Much of the beauty of this music can't be found in Feinberg's performance.

Update: Any failing that I'm noticing from the performances happens when Feinberg adopts faster tempos than the norm; he loses quite a bit of beauty and lyricism while picking up only small amounts of excitement. So far, it's not an approach I appreciate and is holding his set back from being among the best.

Prelude in C sharp minor – Reflective and intensely sad, Feinberg is superb in the prelude and at Tureck's exalted level. Both bring out every nuance of the prelude with great urgency and beauty.

Fugue in C sharp minor – More demonstrative than its partner, the fugue's harmonic density intensifies as the music progresses. The prelude reflects and the fugue takes action. Feinberg has total command of the music as he tightens the tension while providing all the beauties of the piece. This is a version to stand tall next to Richter's magisterial reading.

Prelude in D Major – With continuous semi-quavers coming from the right hand and a staccato bass line from the left, this prelude is joyful, playful, and deliciously sparkling. Hewitt is outstanding here with as she alternates volume levels and provides a bass line which is superbly projected. Feinberg is much quicker, less nuanced, and his bass line is nowhere as well projected as Hewitt's. Also, I can't say that his performance has great sparkle to it. The performance is competitive with other very fast recorded versions.

Fugue in D Major – This is heroic music with double-dotting which Hewitt performs splendidly. Feinberg does quite well, but his double-dotting is not as pronounced or appealing as Hewitt's.

Prelude in D minor – The prelude, having an intense galloping element from the right hand's broken chords, is dark and foreboding in mood. My two favorite versions, Schiff and Fischer, present quite different conceptions. Schiff is slow paced and reveals all the details of the architecture; it's a wonderful performance to become immersed in. You don't want to be immersed in Fischer's version very long because he will terrorize you with great tension and menace. Feinberg takes the Fischer route and is very effective; he provides some rhythmic variation and beautifully slows down at the conclusion. But, there's no possibility of his out-menacing Fischer.

Fugue in D minor – All of Feinberg's greatest attributes as a Bach performing artist come to the forefront in the D minor Fugue. His intuitive knack to change tempo and volume at the right moment, great sense of momentum, and ability to find every morsel of poetry and nuance add up to the best reading I have ever heard. Feinberg reminds me some of Fischer's excellent performance loaded with tension, but Feinberg goes well beyond tension and gloriously opens up the music.

Prelude in E Flat Major – This majestic music comes in three sections: a toccata-like opening, slow ricercare, and a quick double fugue. It all adds up to one of Bach's most life-affirming creations. Tureck is magical in the E Flat Major; it feels as if she could take all life under her wings. Feinberg doesn't get to that point, and his penchant for taking very fast tempos is the reason. His opening is too fast as is the double fugue. The result is certainly competitive with most alternative versions but well below the highest level.

Fugue in E Flat Major – This is another instance where Feinberg uses a speed which provides no advantages. The music possesses great momentum and is light and joyful. Feinberg's fast tempo is not necessary to display those elements, and I don't think that the excitement route is the most rewarding for this fugue.

Prelude in E flat minor – This is the type of Bach's music that Feinberg is best at – slow and seriously reflective. I love the boldness he invests the music with and his fantastic accenting. There's not a better version to be heard.

Fugue in D sharp minor – This is also reflective music but with greater severity than the E flat minor, although the fugue also has wonderfully uplifting passages as well. Again, the music and Feinberg are a perfect match. The only version I prefer is Leonhardt's which has stronger inevitability.

Prelude in E Major – Sublime joy combined with tension from the minor mode make this prelude one of Bach's most delightful. There are many great versions, and Feinberg's is one of them. I was a little concerned that he would turn on the speed burners, but his tempo is a little slower than Fischer's and no problem at all. His interpretation is not one of the more comforting, but the tension and joy are at high levels.

Fugue in E Major – Exuberance and confidence are the emotional themes of this fugue which has running 16th notes in perpetual motion. I hear the music as heralding the beginning of a day of bustling commerce in times of great prosperity, sort of a tribute to individual industry. Jandó and Schepkin perform strongly and with great vitality. That's also the approach taken by Feinberg, but it does not succeed very well. Although he starts off fine, Feinberg soon gets a little messy with the phrasing and sounds rushed. I don't find this performance a competitive one.

Update: When looking back to the Feinberg performances reviewed which I find no better than competitive, a relatively fast tempo is always involved. This has me thinking of Rosalyn Tureck who rarely gets into very fast speeds. She knows her strengths and with little exception plays into them. Feinberg doesn't seem to have this trait in full supply. Very fast tempos can work wonderfully and quite often for artists like Gould and Richter, but I don't hear anything that tells me Feinberg is in this particular category. Overall, his performances so far would easily rate a strong recommendation, but those fast speeds hinder them from being at Tureck's level.

Prelude in E minor – The prelude comes with two sections; the first is prayerful with growing levels of intensity, the second is rapid-fire and ominous. Suzuki's harpsichord version on BIS is as good as it gets. His first section is brooding and heating up with the smell of carnage in the air; the second section finds emotional hell and panic. This is a version to treasure. Feinberg's first section is also treasurable but for different reasons. He looks inward with prayer; Suzuki always has the periscope up. In the second section, Feinberg heads in Suzuki's direction but can't quite reach his level of impending doom. Overall, Feinberg is mighty fine in the E minor.

Fugue in E minor – The hell on earth anticipated by the prelude comes to fruition in the fugue; however, you have to switch from Suzuki to Richter to fully get there. I've called Richter's version the "slash and burn" fugue. With razor-sharp strokes, Richter's evil leaves nobody breathing or in one piece. The underside of human thought and activity has climbed to the top. But does Feinberg see it that way? If he does, it's only sporadically. Feinberg smooths out many of the razor-sharp and bold strokes and invests the music with more poetry than Richter. Since I'm not concerned much with the poetic possibilities, I'll take the relentless Richter every time.

Prelude in F Major – Both the Prelude and Fugue give me a strong sense of community; joy is definitely the prevailing emotional theme. In the Prelude, Schepkin's version is exceptional with fast tempo, excitement, and a full measure of life's pleasures. The same can be said for Feinberg's version; he unfortunately does not enjoy the excellent sound provided Schepkin.

Fugue in F Major – There isn't much point in comparing the Feinberg to the great performances by Jarrett or Fischer. Feinberg's in his own class; whether that's favorable or not depends on the listener's preferences. Personally, I find his frequent shifts in volume and tempo annoying; I also feel that he romanticizes the music. This is the first time in the set that I've had this reaction and hope it's the last.

Prelude & Fugue in F minor – This sequence is one of the most powerful in Book I. Intense levels of resignation and despair combine with some of the most beautiful an uplifting passages to create its own world which is at once supremely optimistic and also neurotically headed toward destruction. The Prelude has a particularly gorgeous passage about 30 seconds into the piece. The Fugue is even more intense, but also has wonderful rays of light provided by diatonic passages which contrast exquisitely with the prevailing moods.

I listened to outstanding performances from Gulda, Tureck, Fischer, Schiff, and Aldwell. Feinberg's Prelude is as good as any of those, but it's the Fugue where he eclipses all comers. When I was listening to Gulda, I thought that his could not be bettered; Feinberg changed that assessment from the start. He's incisively sharp and bold, never missing any nuance. His forward momentum is perfect while he also explores every note which leads him to a far greater level of expressiveness than Gulda or any other artist. I think of Gulda's version as a full-length story; Feinberg's is an epic.

I feel I've taken Feinberg far enough in Part 1, so I'll end on this note. Previously, I had mentioned the one aspect of Feinberg's performances which is not appealing – a tendency in a few pieces to not play into his strengths, to use faster than average tempos. That situation still exists at this point. However, the remainder of the performances, and that's most of them, are excellently performed and interpreted. In addition, a few are majestic and magical readings.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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