Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931) was a virtuoso pianist, conductor and teacher whose class comprised the likes of Simon Barere, Maria Grinberg and Vladimir Horowitz. But he was also a composer of an oeuvre of breathtaking beauty, originality and sophistication.
Blumenfeld was himself taught as a child by his sister’s husband Gustav Neuhaus, father of the de facto founder of the modern Russian piano school, Heinrich Neuhaus. However, it was Rimsky-Korsakov who exercised the most formative influence on the young Blumenfeld, introducing him to fellow Silver-Age composers and to the influential publisher Belaieff, who recognised the young pianist’s talent and then issued many of his works.
Even in his mid 20s Blumenfeld began teaching at the St Petersburg Conservatoire but resigned in protest at Rimsky-Korsakov’s dismissal following the senior composer’s support of the protestors killed in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905. At length he returned to his post but left for Kyiv on the outbreak of the Russian revolution, and became rector of the conservatoire founded by Mykola Lysenko (where he taught Horowitz).
Chopin, Wagner and other Romantic-era masters all make their presence felt in the surging melodies and passionate harmonies of Blumenfeld’s own music. Published in 1892 by Belaieff and dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife, the Op.17 form a quintessential work of Slavic late Romanticism. They are structured in four books of six preludes, touched with the solemnity of Orthodox chant at points and often aspiring to a grand and tragic idiom despite their relative brevity and tending towards melancholy even in the major-key pieces.
The Op.17 Preludes are complemented in this new recording by Blumenfeld’s study for the left hand Op.36 – relatively familiar as an example of the technique and widely promoted by the likes of Godowsky and Lewenthal. The Op.24 Etude de Concert is a dazzling accumulation of piano sonority requiring the deftest of hands and care over voicing to bring its towering chords to life.
A string of Mark Viner’s albums for Piano Classics have won critical superlatives. Among the latest of them was a collection of Cécile Chaminade (PCL10164) – ‘among the finest yet,’ according to Gramophone, ‘showing the range and ambition of Chaminade in short works, played with an innate charm and understanding of the genre.’
Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931) was a virtuoso pianist, a celebrated conductor and a renowned teacher whose class comprised the likes of Simon Barere, Marija Grinberg and Vladimir Horowitz, to name but a few. But he was also a composer of an œuvre of breathtaking beauty and originality, sadly neglected for a long time, but gaining more and more recognition nowadays.
Blumenfeld was born in the Ukraine, into a family of Austrian-Jewish and Polish origins (his mother was a cousin of the composer Karol Szymanowski, whereas the famous pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus was his nephew). He was in close contact with the musical giants of his age: Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Borodin and Lyadov.
Like many composers of the so called Silver Age, the majority of Blumenfeld’s compositions are for the piano. His music is rooted in the late Russian Romantic tradition in which a national voice can be heard, while the pianistic writing is undeniably inspired by Chopin, though also the influence of other composers such as Adolf von Henselt and Franz Liszt may be traced. Much of his output also shows the influence of Wagner in its bold chromaticism.
The 24 Preludes Op. 17 are clearly modeled on Chopin’s Op. 28. While much of the pianism is Chopinesque, it is often expanded upon, with technical devices taken further, while the music itself is undeniably Russian in its adoption of folk song and orientalism.
Mark Viner took the musical world by storm by his innovative concert programs and CD recordings containing rarely heard repertoire from unjustly forgotten romantic composers. His Alkan, Thalberg and Chaminade recordings earned him 5 star reviews and Editor’s Choice from Gramophone, The Guardian, Sunday Times and International Piano. He is the Chairman of the Liszt and Alkan Societies. An excellent scholar as well he wrote the extensive liner notes for the booklet himself.