Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Book I, BWV 846-869 (1722)
Book II, BWV870-893 (ca.1739 – 1744)
Samuil Feinberg (piano)
rec. 1958-61, Moscow
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM063 [54:45 + 53:35 + 53:20 + 61:23]
These recordings of Bach’s immortal Well-Tempered Clavier by Samuil Feinberg have appeared on CD before, and were reviewed by Jonathan Woolf in 2006 in their appearance on the Classical Records label. There is another edition on Russian Classical Disc RCD16231, which as things stand at the moment only seems generally available as an MP3 download. In terms of price there are competitive options between the Classical Records CDs and Pristine Audio’s download options, though you can now push the boat out and have this as an Ambient Stereo 24-bit FLAC download via the Pristine Audio website. This review has been done from the CDs.
To start with just a few small quibbles. Pristine Classical use the inside sheet to reproduce review texts on the performances, including one from our very own Jonathan Woolf. These reviews referred to different releases of these recordings so pasting them here seems a little naughty. The sheets announce that full programme notes can be found on the Pristine Classical website, but if you click on the ‘notes’ link you are taken to the Wikipedia page on Bach’s WTC, which to me also seems a bit naughty. More information on Samuil Feinberg or even a more extended Producer’s Note as can be found on WTC II would have been a more useful use of space with the CDs, but as I say, these are small quibbles. You can find out about Feinberg online, and it is interesting to note that he is something of a forgotten composer though his intriguing and Scriabin-tinted piano sonatas have been released on the BIS label, and that this complete recording of Bach’s WTC was the first to be made in Russia and – I am reliably informed – only the third on piano to be made after Edwin Fischer and Rosalyn Tureck.
The producer Andrew Rose has “endeavoured to both clarify and fill out the rather flat sound of the original through XR remastering”. He has added Ambient Stereo processing, which “makes a good job of extracting the room ambience from the original recordings and giving it dimension, whilst retaining the mono image of the piano itself”. This is good to know, since the Russian Compact Disc release – admittedly only heard through online streaming – appears to have been given some processing to give the piano sound a kind of stereo quality, while the room ambience has far less character. The result from Andrew Rose is that the piano has a more natural sound, while it now also gives the impression of having been recorded in a much bigger space. The image is clearer than the alternative and there is more oomph in the bass, this despite the piano now seeming to be a little further away, a side-effect of the slightly ethereal ambience. This effect is by no means distracting over speakers or headphones, though the latter can at times induce a sort of ‘suspension of disbelief’ feeling, like looking at a sepia photo which has been expertly and subtly touched up for colour: you know it has something artificial, but your eyes are happy to take what they see at face value. Another advantage here is that each prelude and fugue is given a separate track, while the RCD release couples each into a single access point.
There is something very special about Samuil Feinberg’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Yes, he occasionally speeds up a little here and there, and there are one or two splashy moments, such as in the Prelude in D major from Book II, but the main impression one takes away is of the sheer intelligence and sympathy of musicianship with which each piece is played. I wouldn’t argue that it can only take a composer to play this sort of music well, but one senses that Feinberg can ‘feel’ Bach as a colleague, with a respect and understanding which goes beyond technique and interpretation. The best performances of the WTC are those which sound natural, and Feinberg achieves this with elegance, fluidity, ease, and sublime shaping of each prelude and fugue.
Others have mentioned rapid tempi, and there are indeed numerous cases where speeds are higher than one would normally expect – and indeed not always to the advantage of the music. What we occasionally lose in absolute control is a gain in drama and excitement, and also a gain in terms of contrast, since impetuosity will set us up for tenderness, and velocity for elegiac depth of expression for which many musicians today would exchange fortunes to find. Feinberg finds the human in his Bach, identifies and expresses frustrations and pain as well as joys and ecstasies.
Despite the still unfortunately rather muddy nature of the sound – Book II coming off worse than Book I for some reason – what you will also notice is how modern-sounding Feinberg’s playing is. He is happy to tease with rubato, but keeps everything in proportion and doesn’t become pompous or over-precious. The rise and fall in tempo in something like the Prelude in D sharp minor from Book II is fantasy-like rather than over-romantic. These are by no means anywhere near what early music experts would consider ‘authentic’ Bach style, but neither is the music artificially tortured. Feinberg’s personality is embedded in his playing, but it is not imposed upon the music to its detriment. If this were to have been recorded yesterday in digital Hi-Fi I believe we would still be in awe of the playing, though the aura of a bygone era is hard to shake with the sound quality as it stands.
Samuil Feinberg’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier is a uniquely special document and one which is intensely enjoyable on its own terms as well as in relation to relevant alternatives. Edwin Fischer’s legendary 1933-36 recording is also essential listening, and will be preferable to those who prefer a less romantic approach, Fischer letting Bach’s notes do the talking in straighter readings than Feinberg’s while still somehow holding us enthralled. My preference is for Feinberg if it comes to the desert island choice, but I love both. Rosalyn Tureck is another early exponent, her 1952-53 set ‘discovering slowness’ well before Glenn Gould had his epiphany. I admire Tureck as well, but personally prefer Feinberg’s variety and legato more appealing to her sometimes rather arch clarity.
You can try out Samuil Feinberg via the Pristine Classics website, and I would urge you so to do. When the name popped up on our list of review titles that was what I did, and it only took a few seconds for me to realise what I had been missing. Expertly remastered, this set is one which you will find you need rather than merely ‘return to’ now and again. Even with all the superb modern recordings around these days, this is one which has kept a timeless magic which none can deny.