PIANO WORKS BY SARA FEIGIN / FEIGIN: 2 Pieces. Toccata. 4 Scenes. Piano Variations. Piano Sonata / Benjamin Goodman, pn / Navona NV6147
Latvian composer Sara Feigin (1928-2011) is scarcely known in the West, yet here is a full album of her piano works played by British-born pianist Benjamin Goodman. Despite its largely tonal bias and use of folk melodies, it is also very challenging music, complex, rich, and difficult to play. In the liner notes, Goodman makes mention that when first looking the music over he had to write in the fingerings he would use or wanted to use, because it was so challenging that he couldn’t just sit down and sight-read it without working on it. As he put it, the music demands “huge leaps for the left hand in very fast tempi, polyrhythmical measures leading into completely different polyrhythmical measures, repeated notes at extremely fast tempi with soaring melody lines on top and base lines beneath them (such as in the Toccata), something one would imagine only three hands could be capable of playing.
The two opening pieces, “Prelude” and “Storm,” almost have a Chopinesque quality about them, whereas the following Toccata reminded me a bit of Alkan, except with some modern harmonic twists thrown in. This piece was based on the folk music of her native country. I found it utterly fascinating in its complexity and perpetual forward motion.
The 4 Scenes, which include “Legend,” “Joke,” “Memories” and “Perpetuum mobile,” are quite modern in a Stravinskian sort of way, except that Feigin’s music is almost consistently emotional whereas Stravinsky’s is often emotionally cool, even in loud and dramatic passages. Take, for instance, the third piece, “Memories.” It’s written in a waltz tempo, but the fractioning of time and the introduction of what appear to be wayward virtuosic passages break up that rhythm in a way that almost disorients the listener. The “Perpetuum mobile” here, though having a great deal of forward propulsion, is more interesting to the listener for its unusual modal harmonies and the way in which Feigin breaks the tempo up—for instance, in the running bass line later in the piece, against which the right hand plays a motor rhythm in eighths above it.
The Piano Variations actually begin with what is, for her, a simple theme, lyrical and sweet, before taking off into complex variants. What’s interesting about them is that they don’t seem to be discrete variations, such as those in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, but simply an outgrowth of the main theme, as if Feigin sat down at the keyboard and wrote the whole piece continuously. In short, it almost sounds like part of a sonata in which the opening theme or motif becomes the basis for the rest of the movement. That being said, the fourth and seventh variations almost sounds Russian in their deeply-felt emotion, while the fifth is explosive and the sixth somewhat playful. And after the seventh movement, the eighth—which is more dramatic and less lyrical—once again sounds like a logical outgrowth of its predecessor. Goodman performs them, and everything else on this album, with extraordinary commitment and clarity. He doesn’t just play the notes but also the feeling of each piece.
Surprisingly, the first movement of the Piano Sonata almost sounds objective in the manner of Stravinsky. albeit with a more lyrical theme underlying its spiky harmonies. Later on in the movement we hear strange double-time figures running up the keyboard, followed by surprising variants in which the rhythm is broken up as the running figures are themselves transformed into different forms. The second movement, clearly a Scherzo, is playful in the same kind of way that Alkan was playful, adding complex figures to what is essentially a simple rhythm. Feigin was clearly her own person, though; in the end, the music doesn’t really sound like her models but like herself.
The third movement, according to Goodman, is purposely sad and sinister, recalling the massacre that took place at the Babi Yar concentration camp, but Feigin is not maudlin and weepy like Shostakovich. Her music contains an underlying strength, as if she was representing the fight that those victims put up to the very end. The way she juxtaposed moods, emotions and tempi was wholly unique and, for me at least, endlessly fascinating. In the last movement, Feigin presents us with a sort of grotesque march, yet again breaking up rhythms and introducing virtuosic passages that have the emotional force of a sledgehammer.
I was completely awed by this music, most of which has never been performed or previously recorded, and I think you will be, too.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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