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Union: Alan Feinberg

J. S. Bach: Chorale-Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 711
J. S. Bach: Duetto No. 1, BWV 802
J. S. Bach: Sinfornia No. 9 in F Minor, BWV 795
Galina Ustvolskaya: Twelve Preludes (1953)
J. S. Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903
Charles Ives: The Celestial Railroad
Charles Ives: "The Alcotts," from the Concord Sonata
Chopin: Mazurka in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2
Chopin: Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3
Chopin: Barcarolle, Op. 60
Chopin: Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54

Alan Feinberg, piano


Pianist Alan Feinberg's recital Friday evening at the Union Theater was unusual in its program design and fascinating in its execution. A pronounced feature of the whole program was chromaticism and introspection. Along the way Feinberg again and again found ways to emphasize this idea.

Before starting to play, Feinberg spoke to the audience about the composer Galina Ustvolskaya. Saying in passing that she had been "more than a friend" to Shostakovich, "she doesn't want her music to be played in concert halls, but rather in church." After relating this to J. S. Bach's putative mysticism and religiosity, Feinberg asked the audience to withhold applause between selections and sat down to play the first half of the program.

The opening Chorale-Prelude: Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr, BWV 711, an organ work arranged for piano by the Russian Samuel Feinberg, had a calm, wandering aspect, despite its sometimes grandiose scale. In the Duetto No. 1, BWV 802, Feinberg dove more deeply into introspection, paying little heed to the normal, running flow of this work, sometimes lingering so much as almost to stop. Though unusual to the point of being startling, this approach was also revealing, for it emphasized peculiarities in Bach's harmonic concepts and keyboard figurations that would have been far less noticeable at a more usual, less varying tempo. I think it's a tossup how far one should go looking for "inner" things in a composer's work, but once revealed such insights can have a lasting effect on what one hears in the music subsequently. At any rate, it was clearly not quirkiness for its own sake.

Feinberg took a similar approach to the Sinfonia No. 9 in F Minor, BWV 795, a piece that even without such a free interpretation seems unusual in the context of Bach's other two- and three-part Inventions. This was followed, after only a brief pause, by Ustvolskaya's Twelve Preludes (1953). These aphoristic pieces -- the set takes about 20 minutes to play -- are of two main types: slow and extremely delicate, or fairly fast and quite loud. The loud portions are nearly all marcato and even the soft ones are without noticeable lyrical intent. Rather, they seem to be -- one must speculate, given a first hearing -- purely a matter of tonal relationships worked out according to some private scheme or impulse. At least, I did not have the impression that events were capricious or random.

Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903 was much more nearly straightforward. It seemed odd, given what had preceded it, that in the fantasy Feinberg rushed past any number of opportunities for lingering over certain details, above all on its last page, where the aching suspensions and overall harmonic scheme are uncommonly expressive. In the fugue, too, expressivity seemed to interest Feinberg less than the main structural details. He made overly much of the various guises under which the subject is presented, somewhat at the expense of clarity in its more detailed developments. In addition, he chose a tempo that quickly resulted a pell-mell virtuosic character, with an attending loss of security in the solidity of the playing.

Though Feinberg did not explicitly ask for it, the audience again withheld applause until the end of the program's second half, which offered two works of Ives and four of Chopin.

Ives' Celestial Railroad is frankly programmatic, a dream of spiritual passage based on Hawthorne's short story of the same name. This is an extraordinary piece, very free and eclectic as is Ives' usual wont, but certainly casting a spell. Its very brief chorale section near the end provided a link to the next Ives work, "The Alcotts," the slow movement of the Concord Sonata, in which chorale music is a central feature. All this music is fiercely difficult to play, and in contrast to the program's first half, for which he used the notes, here Feinberg played from memory.

The Chopin group too he played without the notes. Overall the idea of introspection yielded to pensiveness. Beginning with the Mazurka in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2 and the Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3, lovely pieces beautifully played, Feinberg brought his program to a wonderful climax in the Barcarolle, Op. 60, which he played with considerable lyricism and gentleness, avoiding the snares of its bravura sections, which can grow too large for the scale of the whole. At this point I had some difficulty restraining the urge to applaud, because it was such a terrific reading. There was in any case plenty of bravura to be had in the Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54, of which Feinberg also made a great performance, while still fitting it into the overall design of the program.

Though the hall was about only about two-thirds full, there was enthusiastic applause at the end of the recital. Feinberg returned to the stage, rather shyly saying, "I hadn't planned to do this, but...," then offering as an encore Chopin's Etude in E-Flat Minor, Op. 10, No. 6, easily the most introspective, pensive and questioning of the composer's 27 etudes.

In sum, this program was absorbing fare for those who value something other than just another piano recital. It was probing and intelligent, obviously motivated more by inner questioning than by extroverted display, and hence particularly gratifying.

Isthmus, October, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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