A composer, master interpreter and broadly cultured genius, Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) impressed Scriabin with his playing of the composer’s works, was a colleague of Prokofiev, and wrote a philosophical treatise, Pianism as Art, that places him amongst the great musical thinkers. These rescued recordings found their way to us on a circuitous route starting in Moscow, via Beirut, Paris, then arriving in New York. Kept in closed archives, they expose an Imperial era artist who protected his art from compromise by Soviet dictates and its vulgarity.
- Bach Fantasia & Fugue in A minor BWV 904: Fantasia
- Bach Fantasia & Fugue in A minor BWV 904: Fugue
- Scriabin Piano Sonata no. 5
- Rachmaninoff Prelude op. 23, no. 1
- Rachmaninoff Prelude op. 23, no. 3
- Rachmaninoff Prelude op. 23, no. 7
- Rachmaninoff Prelude op. 23, no. 8
- Rachmaninoff Etude tableau op. 39, no. 9
- Liszt Consolation no. 1
- Liszt Consolation no. 2
- Chopin Ballade in F minor, op. 52
- Bach-Liszt Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, BWV 542: Fantasia
- Bach-Liszt Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, BWV 542: Fugue
- Bach Sinfonia in A, BWV 798
- Bach-Feinberg Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 533: Prelude
- Bach-Feinberg Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 533: Fugue
- Bach Toccata in D, BWV 912
If we imagine the entire path of a composition, from its origins to its completion in a real interpretation, we see a line passing from infinity, through the finite elements of the written score, and back to infinity. The original stimuli of art are infinitely complex, the sound elements that need to be written as notes are finite, and the number of interpretations that appear out of them is endless. Performance depends on an uncountable number of reasons and conditions. Performing style changes with the tastes and moods of the times, responding to new audiences’ demands. Each new performer introduces special, individual qualities into his playing. Therefore it is extremely difficult to fix the character of any performance in strict and precise terms. The author himself envisions the inevitable variability of future performances of his composition. He equips his work with detailed directions to the performer, striving to avoid the total dissipation of his intentions in the numerous individual interpretations to come. However, two difficulties arise. The composer understands that restricting the performer’s will and freedom of interpretation hinders the natural expression of the artist-performer.
Overly pedantic adherence to the author’s directions may rob the artist’s playing of the necessary freedom and persuasiveness. Everyone remarks on the value and exacting precision of Beethoven’s performance directions, yet even these often slow down and obstruct the natural flow of an interpreter’s ideas. The overly frequent variations of dynamics and force of sound that are fixed in the shadings of the score may destroy a performer’s internal conviction as to the correctness of his choice of interpretive ideas, and rob his playing of unity and logical development. How often a composer softens his directions with terms such as mezzo, poco, non troppo, so as not to make the stipulated performance shading sound like a teacher’s directive or unsolicited advice. Nevertheless, in the real world one sees that a natural and logical flow of playing is most often disrupted precisely where there are the composer’s or editor’s indications.
Another difficulty, possibly the most important one, lies in the dichotomy between pre-imagined ideas of sound, and the realized work. This dichotomy treacherously awaits both the composer and the performer throughout the entire creative process. It is easy to make a mistake as to future interpretation while sitting at one’s desk, writing down and playing the work in one’s mind. Introducing tempo markings and shadings, the composer either recalls his own playing or imagines the ideal effort of a performer-interpreter. In both cases his imagination can mislead him, presenting only a partial rendering of the actual performing process which depends on various factors: the creation of sound, the overcoming of technical difficulties, and most importantly the possibilities and restrictions of a concrete instrumental style. One is led to the conclusion that the flow of an imagined sonic thread follows its own rules and principles, and is not necessarily identical to real sound. Imagined sounds are somehow lighter independent of the technical, material aspects in playing. Notes stressed in the author’s mind may not need to be played any more loudly: it suffices for the composer to stress them in his own mind. An accent stressed in the realm of the imagination may not always be transferred adequately to performance.
Illusion and reality always complement and affect each other in music. The mutual penetration of these two elements permeates the sound fabric. Both the compositional concept and interpretive style are built upon a synthesis of imagined and real sounds. The very perception of music is related to these differing varieties of sound. Many of Schumann’s shadings stress, softening and accents belong to the category of mentally stressed sounds, more speculative than empirical. Sound elements that occur in reality and imagined ones, intended for the mental ear only, can complement each other but can also be contradictory. Their struggle sometimes increases the tension of the perceived musical fabric.
The Creative Freedom of a Performer
Regarding the creative freedom of a pianist, one should underline the need for a musical image that is nurtured by the mental ear. Reading of the score should come before the production of sound. Each note should be first heard in the mind and only later realized. Then the pianist’s playing becomes a creative act that turns the world of musical images into actual sound.
The music lives before and after the actual sound, in constant development. The musical memory connects the preceding sounds with their later development, joining the future and the past, and creating the image of a whole musical form. The charm and poetry of a solo performance are in the fact that the transition from inner image to real sound is achieved by the individual will of an artist. The performer’s art blends the inner life of a musical image and the external form of sound. The elastic reality of art and its shadow are synthesized in a united creative process.
The competition between the soloist and the orchestral accompaniment in a concerto invariably underlines the difference between objective accomplishment and the dreamy vision of the soloist. The orchestral part is closed in a concrete circle. The orchestra always “knows everything,” like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. The soloist’s interpretation is full of unsolved mysteries, hopes, fears, expectations. Threads from the past lead the performer into the realm of an unresolved future. The entire art of the soloist is to address not only the hearing but to a greater extent the imagination and sympathy of the audience. It is up to him to stress or leave in shadow, accentuate or soften details in the landscape of the musical form. This is the source of the word “rubato”: stealing.
An outstanding artist-performer appears in front of the listener as an important, gifted, complete individuality with an active mind, a rich inner world, and the special mastery of musical form that may be called the gift of artistic vision. The score of a composer is not a marching order “to be performed!” for a gifted soloist. A performer must resolve the entire depth of the ideas contained there. How often carefully notated shadings, accents, tempo changes reveal not simply a positive characteristic of sound but rather the untold sides of the author’s concept. How many directions we find in Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, even Beethoven that a pianist should follow not in a real sound but by addressing the subtlest hints to the imagination of a listener!
The observations of composers performing their works are instructive; the phrasing in their own performances, following their own directions, often turns convex lines into concave, the prescribed tempo and dynamic markings are violated. Such substitutions may only be explained by the dominance of the author’s imagination over the actual sound.
The gradual acquisition of realistic qualities of sound leads to drastic changes in the musical images. Therefore the inviolate reading of the score a priori before touching the instrument may not give the complete scope of the interpretation to come. The performer gradually limits the composer’s concept to the practical possibilities of the instrument, upon mastering it with the mental ear. Being in the center of the musical forces he creates the sound while simultaneously being carried by the sound field. The will of the playing artist expresses itself in overcoming and restraining the capriciousness of the sound matter: his creative will alternatively accepts and rejects the sounds produced by the instrument.
We describe playing as emotional exactly when this struggle reaches an incredible stress. A flawless performance of difficult passages does not always satisfy a listener even though he acknowledges the mastery of the pianist. The playing truly overcomes the listener when the struggle of the inner image and its outside covering becomes apparent. Virtuosic playing becomes the victory of intellect over earthly matter, and the listener sees clearly the spirit and essence of the musical art. Otherwise the most precise and refined mastery seems mechanical, like a player-piano as a substitute. Gifted playing is a dialectic process where the inner world of sound constantly acquires new qualities as it is being realized.
A vital, effective and impressive art cuts various paths and uses different, sometimes contradictory means to achieve its artistic goals. It is hard to distinguish in art between carefully worked out techniques which form the daily labor of an artist, and the more rare, enlightening and intuitively found paths and solutions. Both are necessary, “inspiration is a guest that does not like to visit the lazy,” as was said by a great Russian composer. Sometimes the most prosaic attempts lead to unexpected artistic discoveries, while an inspired breakthrough requires long, unrelenting work for triumphal practical results. Everything in the work of an artist is important and illuminated by the grand aesthetic goal. There are no accomplishments that have not been preceded by many steps in developing mastery and an understanding of the principles of the creative method.
The goal of art theory is to slowly reclaim everything accessible to understanding, generalization and logical development, from the realm of the seemingly unknowable. It is commonly objected that the path of a creative artist is different from the usual conscious behavior of man, that it is built of unconscious, intuitive acts, like the path of a lawless comet in the “predictable circle of planets.” However, much can be accounted for in the domain of artistic instinct: a constant, stable logic of artistic interactions can be found, just as a comet’s orbit can be marked on a map of the stars.
The pianist’s art is often treated simplistically in light of the laws of physiology and in connection with the anatomical build of the hand or as an incomprehensible process lying purely in the domain of intuitive human actions. This simplicity is often related to the fact that many performers with insufficient knowledge of the practice of art prefer to rely on general accomplishments seen from a motoric-apparatus perspective. Others, having scaled the highest summits of art, forget the many mistakes and difficulties that they have experienced, and have overcome through ceaseless productive thinking. The superstitious theory that a clear, conscious understanding of all the stages of a creative path might hinder the freedom and immediacy of artistic thought is sometimes invoked. In reality, artistic inspiration cannot completely reject the mind the intellect that corrects the free flight of imagination in even the most precious moments of creative impulse. The most fruitful hours of creation may coincide with those of rigorous critical thinking. In some way, one has to balance “pure mind” and “pure intuition” in one’s work. The artist’s wisdom ideally helps and guides his inspiration, preventing it from turning into the baseless ecstasy so reasonably condemned by Pushkin. Finally, an artist does not perpetually exist in an exalted state of mind, in which artistic discoveries follow one after another. He spends many hours in everyday, but necessary, practice hours when he needs both a clear mind and wise guidance.
The dynamics of artistic will play an enormous role in the development of a performer’s artistic self, but they should not be identified with thoughtlessness and a careless wish for on-stage elation. One should not merely live and feel in art, one has to live through a great deal and endure a great deal. This extra qualifier equally applies to thought, as much is reconsidered while artistic images build. And there is another danger: that the mind may overlook what is most important in art and overestimate the secondary and unnecessary. How often do musicians dogmatize random qualities of interpretation, or irrelevant details of a performance, especially if these features are found in the playing of a great artist! Humans are sometimes guilty of mannerisms and posturing, but those things do not hold the key to a great master’s charm.The strength of analytic thought and sharpness of observation do not lie in canonizing outer, random tricks, but in capturing the essence that lies at the core of mastery, which is invisible at a superficial glance. The purpose of deep critical thought is to grasp the invisible and make it tangible. On the other hand one should be careful not to fall under the dogmatic spell of theoretical preconceptions.
What can be the best hope of a researcher undertaking the task of untangling the specifics of such a refined art as piano playing? This art has no detailed theoretical system. This art constantly changes its favored forms and tastes, its technique and common trends. Almost all theoretical concepts have to retreat when confronted with the practice of outstanding masters of pianism, overwhelmed by the contradictions and complexity of live phenomena. This leads to an almost uniform and quite understandable skepticism on the part of expert practitioners, who tend to reject the universality of any “theory” and confine themselves to a “working hypothesis.” Hence the most we can hope for is to capture at least some universal trends and general principles, which may lead a conscientious pianist toward the steady development of his art. Anything that might be said of such a dynamic art may be of only passing value, as any principle or technique bows out to new stylistic logic. However, an artist changes with the times as well. He is alive as an artist only as long as his performing concepts remain unfinished, as long as they are transformed along with modern musical art as well as developments in other arts. Therefore, the contradictions which the reader finds in these notes should be attributed to the difficulties which inevitably accompany any attempt to fix and stabilize live artistic development.
Translation: Lenya Ryzhik and Steven Emerson.