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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well Tempered Clavier BWV 846-893 (1722, 1744)
Samuil Feinberg (piano)
Recorded Moscow 1958-61
CLASSICAL RECORDS CR 065 [3 CDs: 74.34 + 75.12 + 72.20]

I was last aware of Feinberg’s 48 on Russian Disc back in the mid-nineties. Its stature has survived over forty-five years’ scrutiny, a period that is admittedly significantly less than Edwin Fischer’s pioneering set – which, though older, has always much more widely available – but that still attests to the hold it has exercised over admirers and detractors alike. Naturally one can be both pro and contra Feinberg throughout the course of nearly four hours but one’s admiration for the immensity of his achievement will be undiminished.

Collectors will have one of the previous transfers of the set. Many will have encountered the Russian Disc, though this became increasingly difficult to obtain. This new transfer doesn’t sound very different from previous incarnations. The original recording, I always thought, was made in 1959 but the years of recording as given here are 1958-61. It wasn’t in any case a conspicuously successful recorded set up, lacking a certain amount of clarity and definition but it is certainly serviceable.

The performances are remarkable and consonant with the corpus of Feinberg’s Bach recordings from the early German discs (on Arbiter) to the final recordings made weeks before his death, of which the Feinberg arrangements of Chorale Preludes are some of the most moving performances known to me.

Salient features are the profound humanity of his approach, the warmth of his playing, the constant tempo and dynamic changes and fluctuations, pervasive rubati and rallentandi. Tempi can frequently be very fast though usually – but not invariably - melodic lines are projected with clarity. He seeks to convey meaning through phrasal plasticity, to sculpt through peaks and troughs of dynamic gradations and to explore the serious nobility of many of the Preludes through the noblest of touches. Such qualities can be heard in the Prelude of the C minor of Book I; in the Prelude of the same book’s C sharp minor he is joyous, intensely alive to the swinging rhythm generated by retardation and acceleration of the rhythm. The beauty of his voicings is plainly audible in the Prelude of the C sharp minor, its density of utterance in the same key’s Fugue. The occasional rushing of the D major Prelude can be contrasted with the kind of rolled chord legato of the Prelude of the E flat minor, though it’s fair to say that Feinberg’s ethos involves an appreciation of contrastive tempi for some of its most immediate impression.

The measured exultance of the Prelude of the A flat major is wondrous. If the momentarily confused voicings of the Fugue in B flat major disconcert one should be aware that Feinberg’s vision is a personal one, embracing the florid as well as the patrician. His fluid tempi and beauty of tone enhance his playing of the Prelude in C major, which opens Book II. Playing of this level of expressivity will occasionally veer toward over-animation but the D major Fugue illustrates the components that go toward such visceral playing – alternation of tempi, richly characterised phraseology, exceptional voicings. If one listens to the Prelude of the F sharp minor one can feel that remarkable ability to increase tension through this myriad of means, to galvanise and build up blocks of dynamism and then to release and dissipate the tension. In his hands inspiration comes fully formed.

Richter and Feinberg occupy differing traditions in the 48 and lucky the collector who can enjoy both, with Fischer, on their shelves. A more modern recording will be necessary but for Feinberg admirers no collection is complete without this recording. The notes are rather concise but there are small but excellently reproduced photographs.

Jonathan Woolf


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