by Robert Battey
Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942). Feuermann was born in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now part of Poland. The family moved to Vienna when he was still a child and his early career was centered in Germany. He toured the world extensively during the mid-1930's and eventually settled in the US, where he applied for citizenship. Feuermann never played in an orchestra; a child prodigy who made his debut at 11 with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Haydn concerto, he was destined for cello stardom from the outset. He did, however, excel as a chamber musician and teacher, holding positions at the Berlin Hochschule and Curtis. Among his students were Bernard Greenhouse and David Soyer.
This artist occupies a special niche in our constellation; many who heard him considered him the most extraordinarily gifted instrumentalist ever. His tragic death, due to medical negligence following a routine operation, prevented him from attaining the full fruition of his artistic potential (though his genius was already well-recognized -- pallbearers at his funeral included Toscanini, Szell, Ormandy, Schnabel, Serkin, Elman, and Zimbalist). Worse, for us; it limited his recordings to a maddeningly small number.
But they are worth tracking down, and worth putting up with the primitive sound, because the artistry is truly unique. There has never been a cellist who sounded so nonchalantly at ease in the upper register, whose bow arm was so nimble, or who took so many chances (and successfully!) with his slides. He was a relatively small man, but somehow made the cello seem almost like a toy. His almost supernatural technique astounded and intimidated all who played with him.
It was also remarked that Feuermann’s sound was the most violinistic of any cellist, and this was not by accident. His older brother was also a child prodigy, on the violin. Feuermann, as a toddler, would attend his brother’s lessons, and his earliest musical efforts were to play a violin held in cello position. As an adult, one of his celebrated parlor tricks was to play the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto this way (he was also said to be able to play it in the original octave on the cello). It is thus understandable that Jascha Heifetz found in him the ideal chamber music partner. The recordings they made together -- string trios with William Primrose, piano trios with Arthur Rubenstein, and, above all, the Brahms Double Concerto with Eugene Ormandy -- represent for many of us the apogee of virtuosity.
Janos Starker, an artist we will profile later in this series, said of Feuermann, “I place him as the most important figure for 20th century cello playing . . . . [While] Casals was responsible for establishing cello playing of the modern age, [it was] Feuermann who showed us the way to the next development. The cello was no longer an instrument to be excused because of its difficulty. He overcame all the difficulties which before his time were considered almost invincible obstacles.”
Feuermann’s recording career began in the late 1920's and included the world premiere recording of the Dvorak concerto, on the Parlophone label. For most of the 1930's he recorded for English Columbia, and when he moved to America he joined RCA. Fortunately, all of this material is available on CD, much of it on multiple labels. All the English Columbias are neatly collected on 3 Pearl CD’s. The early Parlophones turn up on various small European labels, and the RCA’s are still available on their original label (but also in even better transfers on Biddulph). Unlike some of the other artists we will survey, there are no bad Feuermann recordings; everything is worth having. To be sure, not everything he plays will be to all tastes. He sounds almost flippant at times, and his tone has neither the voluptuous roundness we are used to hearing from some of today’s artists nor the gruff humanity of Casals’. But a number of his recordings are simply matchless, coming from some instrumental world we can only imagine. In particular the Haydn concerto, Schelomo, the collaborations with Heifetz, sonatas by Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the Chopin Polonaise display the quintessential Feuermann qualities mentioned. Finally, a “best-buy” that no cellist should be without was recently released on the budget Naxos label. The CD contains both the Haydn concerto and the world premiere recording of the Dvorak, including alternate takes for portions of the first and second movements. Feuermann’s recordings are a priceless resource, to be studied and enjoyed.
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