Samuil Feinberg: a life in the service of art

Farhan Malik
Friday, March 8, 2024

Continuing his series of articles on great 20th-century Russian pianists, Farhan Malik explores the life and distinctive pianism of Samuil Feinberg

Samuil Feinberg (Tully Potter Collection)
Samuil Feinberg (Tully Potter Collection)

Samuil Feinberg was a unique figure among Soviet pianists. Not only was he a truly great pianist, but he was also a serious composer and celebrated pedagogue. He was the first pianist in Russia to play the complete Well-Tempered Clavier in concert, and on several occasions programmed all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. In addition, he championed the music of contemporary Russian composers along with the standard classics. As was the case with Vladimir Sofronitsky, he rarely left Russia and was therefore hardly known outside of the Soviet Union for most of his lifetime.

Samuil Feinberg was born on 26 May 1890 in Odessa. His father, Evgeny, was a nonconformist who sympathised with the less fortunate and despised the well-off. In 1887 Evgeny was arrested for possession of prohibited literature and sentenced to one year in solitary confinement. Once released, he obtained his law degree and married his fiancée Anna Rabinovich. The following year, Samuil’s older sister Bella was born.

In 1894 the Feinbergs moved to Moscow. Six-year-old Bella showed a real interest in music and began taking piano lessons with a local teacher named Sofia Gurevich. After each lesson, little Samuil would go to the piano and play by ear everything he had heard his sister play. It quickly became obvious that the little boy would need piano lessons too. Samuil’s immense talent became clear early on thanks to a miscommunication. Gurevich assigned him Beethoven’s simple Sonatina in G major but Samuil misunderstood and instead learnt Beethoven’s much more difficult Sonata in G major, Op 49 No 2.

When Feinberg was 10, his parents decided he needed a more advanced teacher so, he began lessons with Alexander Jensen. Under Jensen, Feinberg stuck mainly to the masterworks of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Feinberg was also encouraged to attend concerts of all the great visiting artists and was thus exposed to the playing of Josef Hofmann, Sergey Rachmaninov, Alexander Scriabin and many other great pianists. Around this time, Samuil wrote his first compositions, so it was decided he should also study music theory.

Feinberg made great progress under Jensen’s tutelage, and in 1904 Jensen recommended that he continue his studies with the renowned pedagogue Alexander Goldenweiser. Feinberg felt an immediate spiritual connection with Goldenweiser, and as Goldenweiser also composed, this aspect of Feinberg’s development was encouraged. Two years later, when Goldenweiser joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, Feinberg also enrolled there. At his graduation recital in 1911, Feinberg did something unprecedented. In addition to the difficult jury requirements, Feinberg offered all 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. Juries that day went long past their scheduled time as the committee randomly selected Preludes and Fugues, one after the other, all of which were played flawlessly.

In 1913 Feinberg went abroad for the first time, making two short trips to Berlin and Vienna. He hoped to get feedback on his playing and establish connections with some great international figures, including Ferruccio Busoni, Frederic Lamond, Artur Schnabel and Leopold Godowsky. He unfortunately just missed Busoni, but Lamond praised his playing while Schnabel found it excessive and too emotional.

The following year Feinberg played the complete Well-Tempered Clavier over three concerts, becoming the first person to do so in Russia. However, later that year he was required to join the military and was assigned to the Western Front. The gruelling conditions proved too much for Feinberg and he became severely ill on the way to the front. He spent two months in hospital with dysentery, after which he was discharged from the military. This allowed him to devote himself once again fully to his art. When he next visited Goldenweiser in 1916, his former teacher was shocked by how much he had improved. His playing had freed itself from unnecessary tension and nervousness and had acquired an ideal balance of emotion and intellect. He had reached a level where he could play the most difficult technical passages so easily that they did not distract in the slightest from the music.

Feinberg returned to Europe in 1925 for his first official tour there, which included stops in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Venice. He also spent several months playing throughout Germany in 1927; these concerts received excellent reviews and he began to attract attention, but after 1929 he was not able to leave the Soviet Union again other than to sit on the jury of the 1938 Ysaÿe Competition, which incidentally was won by Emil Gilels.

In the 1940-41 season, Feinberg played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in six concerts as well as a four-concert series of works by JS Bach. The outbreak of the Second World War, however, led to his evacuation to Tbilisi, where he temporarily taught at the conservatory. He repeated the cycle of Beethoven sonatas there despite not having adequate practice conditions. He was later moved to Frunze (today called Kadamjay) in Kyrgyzstan, where the living conditions were dreadful. He was finally able to return to Moscow in 1943.

Things took a severe turn for the worse in 1948 with the passing of the Zhdanov decree on formalism in music. Feinberg was among the composers whose music was criticised and persecuted by the Soviet regime. Feinberg refused to adapt to these conditions and fell out of favour, which limited his performance and recording opportunities. As a composer Feinberg was reasonably productive, with 48 published opuses. His major piano works include 12 sonatas, three concertos, two suites and two fantasias, and he also made piano transcriptions of several organ works by JS Bach. His compositional style has been described as continuing where Scriabin left off, though his later works returned to a more diatonic style. His music was praised in the American publication Musical Quarterly, where a reviewer described him as a ‘most striking phenomenon … a powerful talent. Maybe he’s even a genius. A man of abundant imagination …’

In addition to performing his own music, Feinberg was a passionate advocate of other contemporary Soviet composers, including Myaskovsky, Alexandrov, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Medtner and Stanchinsky. In December 1922 Feinberg gave the Russian premiere of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, and in 1925, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Scriabin’s death, he played all 10 Scriabin piano sonatas over two evenings. In 1924 he played a cleverly designed and evocative programme that included the following piano sonatas: Myaskovsky No 2, Alexandrov No 3, Prokofiev No 4, Scriabin No 5 and Feinberg No 6.

In June 1951 Feinberg suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised for two months. Little by little he recovered and was able to resume teaching and composing. He was even able to return to the recording studio, although he had to take a break from performing until 1953. His angina attacks became progressively worse and more frequent until finally he could no longer perform. His final concert took place on 3 April 1956, with a demanding programme: Bach/Feinberg Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548, Schumann’s Waldszenen, Études symphoniques and Humoreske, Chopin’s three Mazurkas, Op 59, and Scriabin’s Fourth Piano Sonata.

In 1958 Feinberg suffered another heart attack, but again he recovered and was able to continue making recordings. In November 1961 he received the news that his teacher Alexander Goldenweiser had died, and the following month the great Russian pianist Grigory Ginzburg, also a Goldenweiser student and with whom Feinberg had played piano duo concerts, also passed away. Feinberg himself suffered a third heart attack in 1962. He appeared once again on the road to recovery but died suddenly on 22 October 1962.

A major part of Feinberg’s legacy is his role as a teacher. In 1922 he joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught until his death. He had great success as a teacher and later became head of the piano department. His student Victor Bunin, who wrote Feinberg’s biography, described the atmosphere in Feinberg’s studio: ‘At lessons there was a special, elevated atmosphere of sacred service to high art. Rather than competition among students there was a spirit of camaraderie where a success for one was a joy for everyone. He never ridiculed or denigrated his students regardless of the degree of their talent.’ About Feinberg’s teaching, Bunin wrote: ‘As a teacher he sought to achieve right from the beginning the desired sound in one’s imagination rather than leave that until the end. Finding the correct sound, the right movements, best fingering, and sense of performing at the start reduced the danger of the ear getting used to imperfect (perhaps it will come later) playing.’

According to Bunin, at lessons Feinberg was a man of few words who preferred to show through music. ‘A word, no matter how precise it may be, is limited … If he talked he used poetry to give the mood. For example, he described the Emperor Concerto’s slow triplet theme in the first movement as stars in the night sky.’ On piano technique, Bunin said that Feinberg gave a lot of technical advice; many new students had to change their ideas about sound production. For example, learning to play staccato with an upward motion from the key like a pizzicato rather than with a down and then up motion. However, he never recommended playing exercises and preferred to use passages in pieces: ‘Don’t you have anything to learn from difficult spots?’

Many of Feinberg’s students went on to have successful careers, including the underrated Zinaida Ignatieva and Victor Merzhanov. When Merzhanov shared first prize with Sviatoslav Richter in the 1945 all-Soviet Union piano competition, the congratulatory telegrams to Feinberg came in droves.

Feinberg’s recorded legacy unfortunately covers only a small fraction of his large repertoire. Those who didn’t conform to the formalism in music decree suffered the consequences, so instead of a cycle of 32 Beethoven sonatas, Feinberg had the chance to record only five of them (in addition to the Appassionata, which he had recorded much earlier). In the recordings he did make, we hear a pianist with absolute control over the instrument who plays with rare freedom and imagination. He recorded several of his own Bach transcriptions, all of which are worth hearing. The small amount of Chopin he left to posterity is outstanding, particularly the three Op 59 Mazurkas. He set down a demonic Liszt Mephisto Waltz, while in Schumann’s Waldszenen he finds the ideal mood for each of the nine pieces. Scriabin’s music takes a prominent place in his discography, and in this music he has few equals. He recorded nearly all of Scriabin’s rarely heard mazurkas, and these recordings are quite simply revelatory. There’s a rhythmic freedom perfect for mazurka style, evocative colours and moods, and deeply expressive phrasing. Scriabin’s Second and Fourth Sonatas also receive phenomenal performances, as does the Fantasy, Op 28.

At the age of 71, after suffering two heart attacks and no longer performing, Feinberg decided to record Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier. In doing so he left us with one of the miracles of recorded pianism. When the recording was released it received worldwide acclaim. Feinberg’s approach to this work is unlike anyone else’s. In order to bring out fugue subjects, most pianists simply strike those notes harder, in the worst cases punching out the theme. In Feinberg’s recording, fugue subjects appear with a hammerless legato that seems to defy the laws of physics. Such ability to voice lines had almost never been heard before. Feinberg’s level of expression in this set was also unprecedented. A four-minute Prelude and Fugue could take on epic proportions, leaving one exhilarated by such a journey (the C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 2, for example). Of course, Feinberg also had his detractors, and some were annoyed by the originality of his interpretations, the freedom of his playing and the departure from established standards.

Feinberg is sadly underrepresented on record. From what has been released, a Melodiya disc of Scriabin Mazurkas is very highly recommended. If you can find it, a CD released by Harmonia Mundi contained some wonderful Chopin and Liszt. The defunct pirate label Arlecchino issued discs of Scriabin and Schumann that remain the only CD transfers of those recordings. Finally, it goes without saying that his Bach Well-Tempered Clavier is an indispensable recording for any music lover.

Feinberg’s devotion to his art was so absolute and all-encompassing that, as is often the case with geniuses, he was unable to live a ‘normal’ life. He felt doomed to live a life of loneliness in order to develop his art to its fullest potential. For that reason he found it difficult to be around people, and even his closest friends weren’t allowed into his innermost world. He never married, and instead lived with his younger brother Leonid (and Leonid’s family after his brother’s marriage) all his life. He despised praise, and continually strove to improve his art until his last days. According to his brother, Samuil felt praise was dangerous as it could lead to contentment and complacency, whereas he always felt he could reach greater heights. He refused to promote himself as he felt that such self-promotion was humiliating and that great art should speak for itself. He didn’t even like to be photographed, and from time to time he would go through his drawers and destroy all reviews, photos, posters and programmes from earlier in his career. All of this contributed to his not receiving the acclaim he deserved and a lack of information about many periods of his life. However, awareness of Feinberg’s great talent continues to grow as his recordings become better known and more of his compositions are performed and recorded. 

The author gives thanks to Victor Bunin and his wonderful biography of Samuil Feinberg (Moscow, 1999) from which many of the biographical details are drawn.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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