Samuil Feinberg
(biography by Christophe Sirodeau in English)
Samuil Feinberg (born in Odessa on 26th May 1890) is known
as a first-rate Russian pianist and teacher, but has unjustly
fallen into oblivion as a composer. He wrote numerous works,
principally for piano and for voice, and his œuvre can be
divided into two parts according to his stylistic development as
a composer. In the works from the period 1910-1933, we can
observe an increasingly rich and virtuoso style of writing, very
chromatic, often violent and rich in contrasts, but sometimes
imbued with a 'symbolist' fragility that owes something to the
in.uence of Scriabin. Then, from 1934 until his death in 1962,
Feinberg moved progressively towards greater simplicity,
towards a diatonic style and a preponderance of melody - somewhat reminiscent of the development
of Prokofiev or of Myaskovsky. In addition, Feinberg made transcriptions, including
some fifteen works by Bach as well as music by other composers.
Feinberg achieved fame as an interpreter at an early age; in 1914 he bacame the first pianist
in Russia to perform Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier in concert (in 1958-59 he made
the second recording of the piece, after that by Edwin Fischer), and he later presented various
cycles of Ludwig van Beethoven's sonatas and championed the music of Scriabin, Prokofiev
and Debussy; his interpretation of Scriabin's Fourth Sonata was much admired by the composer.
Starting from 1924, some of his works were published by Universal Edition, Vienna. The
Piano Sonata No. 6 enjoyed great success at the Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice on
4th September 1925, played by the composer, as did the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 20, when it
was premièred in Moscow in 1932, conducted by Albert Coates. The American critic Carl
Engel - who was to become a friend of Schoenberg - suggested in The Musical Quarterly in
1924 that Feinberg might be a genius. Feinberg went to Paris in November 1925, and he was
invited to Austria and German on numerous occasions (1925, 1927 and 1929). He also made
recordings for Deutsche Grammophon in Berlin as well as for various German radio stations;
he was one of the .rst performers to give a 'live' radio concert, in Berlin in 1927.
Some years later, his increasing success in the West was checked by the political upheavals
of Stalinism in the USSR. It was at this time that his friend and editor Nikolai Zhiliayev (who
had been his composition teacher before 1914) was imprisoned in the context of the Toukhachevsky
affair. Starting in the 1930s, Feinberg was no longer permitted to leave the USSR
except for two appearances as a competition jury member, in Vienna in 1936 and in Brussels
in 1938 and, as his music did not correspond to the criteria of 'socialist realism', he stopped
performing his earlier works, preferring to hide in silence or to produce scores that were relatively
simple for the listener. His Piano Concertos No. 2 (1944) and No. 3 (1947) date from
this period. After the war, however, Feinberg remained one of Russia's most eminent artists
and, towards the end of his life (especially after he gave up performing in public in 1956 for
health reasons), he managed to commit a number of recordings to disc. In addition, from 1922
until his death on 22nd October 1962, Feinberg was one of the most outstanding professors at
the Moscow Conservatory: he was deeply admired by his pupils who, after his death, ful.lled
his wish by posthumously publishing his book Pianism as an Art.
Samuil Feinberg never married and lived with his brother, a painter, and his family. This
situation may have been partly occasioned by an unhappy 'love affair' with Vera Efron (the
sister-in-law of Marina Tsvetayeva) before 1914. He was a very cultured man, spiritual, modest,
and with a profound dislike of self-promotion; he was also a deeply visionary artist who
was fully aware of the abysses and ambiguities of modern life. As Tatiana Nikolaeva used to
say, each of his sonatas represented a 'poem of life'.
Feinberg's stylistic evolution may explain why he did not make a clear mark as a composer:
his major works were those written before the Second World War. The historical circumstances
in Russia, however, did not permit this 'modernist' trend to continue. It is rather
remarkable to observe that the Western press could write that Feinberg was an 'of.cial .gure'
of the Soviet Union, an absurdity for a Jewish musician who had never belonged to the Party
and had felt constrained to retreat into silence. Nevertheless, Feinberg - even if he was one of
the 'cosmopolitans' in Moscow, received a certain protection from his great 'aura' as a pianist
and teacher. During his lifetime, Feinberg the composer achieved public success and enjoyed
the praise of musicians who admired him. Even after his death, however, it was not the done
thing for his pupils and friends to draw attention to his 'non-conformist' side; this problem
means that all the documentation from this period must be interpreted with caution.
It is now time to rediscover scores which stand out for their expressivity, their rigorous
piano writing and their great imaginative power, and which certainly re.ect the anguished
inner world of their composer.
The great formal originality of scores such as the Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 or the
Piano Concerto No. 1, often combined with their emotional content, the specific character of
the keyboard writing, and even the symbolist, nostalgic charm of his melodies (for instance his
Op. 7 [1914], on poems by Alexander Blok), all make the work of Feinberg an indispensable
part of the musical inheritance of the twentieth century; he also left an inestimable legacy as
an interpreter, saved for posterity on his recordings.
©2003 Christophe Sirodeau
English translation: Andrew Barnett for BIS Records AB 2003 (Bis no 1413)
All our thanks for the kind authorisation of Mr Robert von Bahr for this reprint
(You can also find detailled analysis of the 12 Sonatas for piano in this cd and in the following cd no1414)

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