Few historical reissues from Russia have achieved international distribution. Western countries benefited from performances by Russian stars over the years of dictatorship, but what a treasure trove of recordings must await from artists who were not well known outside the Soviet Union! This Russian reissue gives an idea; it consists of a complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2, as performed between 1958 and 1961 by Samuel Feinberg, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Feinberg died the year after this set was finished, and he first played the Well-Tempered Clavier (in its three-hours-plus entirety!) in 1911, for his Conservatory graduation recital. Captured here, therefore, are some impressions of Bach with links to the post-Romantic era in Russia, before the terrors of war and collectivization. As a historical document, this is an invaluable release. The black-and-white photos of the artist (and his students) are illuminating in themselves.
And as an artistic statement, the album is fascinating. It's hard to think of a Bach performance quite like it. The extensive use of the pedal and the free treatment of tempo were staples of the ways in which pianists of a century ago learned to play Bach, but Feinberg's interpretations go beyond those features. His touchstone seems to have been a statement by pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, quoted in some wonderful original liner notes by Feinberg himself: "You can find here," the great virtuoso wrote of the WTC, "fugues of the religious, heroic, melancholic, solemn, pitiful, humoristic, pastoral, and dramatic character; there is only one thing in which they are alike -- their beauty." The hallmark of Feinberg's interpretation, which is extreme but consistently thought-out and executed, is his individuation of Bach's preludes and fugues, accomplished through articulation more than anything else. You may have heard pedaled Bach, Chopin-like Bach, the go-like-the-freezing-wind Bach of Glenn Gould, but you've never heard lines jump out of the texture as they do here, always playing a part in a coherent plan for each piece.
Sound ranges from acceptable to poor, and in some of the performances (sample those in the first half of the first disc) the top register of the piano has a dull metallic clang that reminds one of the smaller gongs in a Javanese gamelan orchestra. But it doesn't matter -- all this does is emphasize the contrasts and distinctness of line that is built into Feinberg's performances. More than a curiosity, this recording is essential listening for the new breed of pianists who are ignoring current fashion and playing the Baroque masterworks on their instrument -- these performers tend to say they never try to make the piano sound like a harpsichord, and a piano has rarely sounded less like a harpsichord than it does here.