BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II.
Samuil Feinberg (piano).
Pristine Audio PAKM 063A/063B TT: 108:19 +115:16.

Born in Odessa to Jewish parents, pianist and composer Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) enjoys a legendary, even mythical reputation in Russia. As a composer, he took off from Scriabin but later flirted with atonality and Schoenbergian serialism, a serious risk in the Soviet Union. Two of his teachers went to prison. Never one to put his music forward in the first place, an attack on one of his piano concerti by the Soviet-music-for-the-proletariat crowd stopped him from performing his own music in public ever after, and even though his output wasn't large, he kept composing until his death. Some of his work has made it to CD.

As a pianist, however, Feinberg attracted serious admirers. Scriabin declared him the best interpreter of his sonatas. He was especially known for his Chopin and Beethoven, and revered for his Bach. He held the entire Well-Tempered Clavier in memory (as well as the 32 Beethoven sonatas, all the Scriabin sonatas, and large swaths of Chopin). Consequently, this release from the audiophile label Pristine of Soviet-era mono recordings made near the end of his life constitutes a major contribution to our appreciation of this figure, currently somewhat obscure in the west.

Feinberg's architectural control through dynamics strikes one in the very first prelude. He approaches the entire set as a Romantic, however. In the first fugue, the dynamics move over a wider range than usual among current pianists. However, the rhythm is taut without strictness, and again the dynamics serve the architecture, this time in bringing out the right voice at the right time. He has achieved a preternaturally clear sound without banging or tip-toeing affectation. His legato is perfection and sounds effortless. Furthermore, the level of each subject entry varies with great sensitivity. I could give you a blow-by-blow of each prelude and fugue, because the high quality of interpretation and performance deserve such a treatment, but you wouldn't really want that. I would rather make the bald pronouncement that these discs are an essential part of every collection. I won't say there aren't individual preludes and fugues among the separate items I wouldn't have taken differently, had I only Feinberg's intellect and fingers. However, there's not one misfire in the 96, and most of them haven't been bettered. Furthermore, you won't mistake Feinberg for anyone else. He achieves individuality without the bizarre. Two great musical minds meet here -- Bach and Feinberg. Even if you already regard Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as a monument of western music, Feinberg reveals you have likely underestimated it. Preludes and fugues that tend to go by in other interpretations here leap out at you with the joy of a new find. Favorites become even more astonishing.

Pristine's brand has consisted of cleaning up and giving real presence to "historic" recordings -- that is, those with surfaces filled with Schmutz and of severely compressed dynamic range. However, the results depend on the quality of original engineering and pressings, and Soviet recordings often fail to rise to the level of an air check. Nevertheless, if you compare these results with the pressing on the Talents Russia label, you realize what miracles Pristine has pulled off. Most importantly, they give you a clear idea of Feinberg's pianism and capture the incredible subtleties of his playing, no small feat.
How can I recommend this disc too highly? As far as I'm concerned, a landmark in recorded music.

S.G.S. (April 2022)