Despite his premature death Emanuel Feuermann made a significant and lasting contribution to the cello’s reputation as a solo instrument, both in his performing activities and through teaching. Perhaps inevitably for one trained in the conservative Germanic tradition by Anton Walter, Friedrich Buxbaum (principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic and member of the Rosé Quartet) and Julius Klengel, but born into a progressive age, Feuerman evidenced stylistic changes during his short career. Klengel saw him as his greatest pupil, calling him ‘our divinely favoured artist and lovable young man’. As with many other European Jewish musicians, the trauma of escaping the dangers of World War II by moving to America brought eventual good fortune for Feuermann as word of his arrival spread fast and he attracted large numbers of fellow musicians to his concerts. He also quickly won over the New York critics, who ranked him second only to Casals. In 1938 he gave a ground-breaking set of performances in Carnegie Hall with the National Orchestral Association, playing thirteen works for cello and orchestra over four concerts. Feats like this, and high-profile collaborations with the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Artur Schnabel and Jascha Heifetz, undoubtedly did much to raise further the ascendant profile of the cello on the concert stage.
Feuermann’s recordings reveal a player of extraordinary talent. At first hearing the pre-1935 performances selected here (Dvořák, Sarasate and Schumann) strike the listener as old-fashioned, an impression perhaps heightened by indifferent recording quality (even by the standards of the time) and, in the case of the Dvořák Concerto, some messy and poorly-tuned orchestral playing that would not be tolerated in the modern age. Upon listening more closely and less emotively, however, one can detect a forward-looking approach to style. Feuermann, who was described by The Strad magazine in 1938 as ‘the Wieniawski of the cello’, uses portamento very sparingly in these recordings, making its occasional employment (in the slow movement of the Haydn concerto, for example) more conspicuous than might otherwise be the case. His vibrato—very sparing in earlier recordings—becomes more or less continuous and tight in the period after his move to America, resembling Heifetz’s approach to the device. These two players are perfectly matched in their taut and vibrant Brahms Double Concerto and make a further happy union with Arthur Rubinstein for Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1941). Most extraordinary, however, is Feuermann’s bow technique, with a quite astonishing delicacy and precision and great clarity of articulation (in the outer movements of the Dvořák in particular).
Included here are several shorter ‘encore’ pieces which display Feuermann’s mastery of these musically-focused works. The Sarasate example from 1927 suffers from misguided remastering, clouding the sound with artificial reverberation that drastically disfigures the tone (especially of the piano), but Schumann’s Träumerei with Michael Taube (1927) is more sympathetically treated by the reissue label Magic Talent, and amply reveals Feuermann’s tonal richness. The 1936 recording of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Le Cygne’ is clear enough to hear Feuermann’s tidy sound and straightforward interpretation.
Inevitably, perhaps, it is the three concerto recordings that are most important. The 1935 Brahms performance with Heifetz is justly famous, and Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra delivers a very modern level of precision. The Haydn (with Feuermann’s cadenzas, copies of which spread quickly amongst other cellists) is a remarkably modern interpretation for 1935, Feuermann’s precision of bowing working well in an enlightened approach to Classical phrase shapes and balance. The Dvořák (recorded over two sessions in 1928 and 1929) is enlivened by brisk tempi and, again, nimble and accurate bowing. Passages often taken slower than marked by other players are all up to tempo, and the uniqueness of Feuermann’s interpretation is cemented by his transposing of certain phrases up an octave! This was the very first commercial recording of the work, and such is the magnetism of Feuermann’s tonal focus here that the untidiness of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra can be easily overlooked.
There is no doubt that Feuermann was one of the greatest cellists of the first half of the twentieth century, making his early demise especially regrettable.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)