Virtuoso performances on the piano

August 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Beethoven, Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 in F minor (opus 2, No.1), 6 in F major (opus 10, No. 2), 12 in A-flat major (opus 26), 13 in E-flat major (opus 27, No. 1), 16 in G major (opus 31, No. 1), 21

("Waldstein") in C major (opus 53), 30 in E major (opus 109), 31 in A-flat major (opus 110) and 32 in C minor (opus 111), performed by Rudolf Serkin (Sony Classical SM3K 64 490)

These sonatas, recorded between 1960 and 1980, have never been released before, and their importance cannot be exaggerated. Although he never was able to complete a projected cycle of the 32 sonatas in New York, Serkin was -- between the death of Artur Schnabel in 1951 and the rise of Alfred Brendel in the late 1970s -- often considered the world's pre-eminent Beethoven player.

Serkin never approved the release of these performances because he thought he could do more justice to these sonatas on a later occasion -- forgetting that this music is better than it can ever be played. He needn't have worried. These are superb performances, and some are great ones.

The five sonatas with the earliest opus numbers are new to Serkin's discography. The best are the four recorded in 1970 when the pianist was a youthful 67. His conception of the F minor Sonata is not gigantic as Sviatoslav Richter's (or as Serkin's was on other occasions), but the others -- particularly opus 26 -- bristle with energy. Serkin's "Waldstein" and opus 109, which were recorded in 1976, are not as impressive pianistically as the long-out-of-print mono versions the pianist recorded in the early 1950s and which deserve reissue. But his powerful opus 111 from 1967 is much better -- more heroically scaled and more energetic -- than the version he recorded in the early 1980s for Deutsche Grammophon.

The best thing in this mid-priced three-CD set, however, is the version of opus 110. Why the pianist never approved this 1960 performance for release but did approve the lackluster performance he recorded about 15 years later is a mystery. This is extraordinary playing: There is a sheer mastery of the notes that Serkin was not always credited for having, a vision of the work that is sublime and a nervous energy that makes the scherzo fly and the final moments of the concluding fugue approach warp speed in their delirious rhapsodizing.

Bach, The Well Tempered Clavier, performed by pianist Samuel Feinberg (Russian Disc RD CD 15 013)

This is perhaps the greatest version of the 48 preludes and fugues of the "WTC" recorded on the piano. Although his name is known in the West only to piano aficionados, Feinberg (1890-1962) was one of the century's great pianists. He played everything -- his performances of Scriabin, Chopin and Liszt were unforgetably fiery -- but he had an intellect ideally suited to Bach and Beethoven. He was celebrated in his native Russia for giving consecutive cycles in a single season of "the 48" of Bach, the piano's Old Testament, and the 32 sonatas of Beethoven, the instrument's New Testament.

Feinberg first performed the "WTC" in its entirety in 1911 and it remained in his repertory until he died. These performances, recorded in 1961, demonstrate a half-century's worth of mastery, experience and study. The pianist's Bach is similar to the famous version recorded in the 1930s by Edwin Fischer. It is pianistically conceived -- no attempt is made to imitate the harpsichord -- and somewhat romantic in feeling. There the resemblance ends.

At 71, Feinberg was still a complete virtuoso with a command of the notes that Fischer didn't begin to approach. His touch, which varied from gentle to thunderous, was capable of making every phrase expressive and giving each voice of the composer's polyphony distinct colors. There is also Feinberg's remarkable intensity, which brings to this music a tremendous -- sometimes demonic -- emotional sweep and which takes the listener on a voyage of discovery that is never less than riveting.


To hear an excerpt from Samuel Feinberg's performance of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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