By Sasha Margolis
Few musicians have been so respected by their peers as Emanuel Feuermann. Pianist Artur Rubinstein thought him “the greatest cellist of all times.” For fellow cellist Janos Starker, Feuermann was “the most important figure for 20th century cello playing…” And “the solo cello of Feuermann,” said conductor Eugene Ormandy, “was something which led me on to what music really means, what it has to say.” When he died in 1942, at the age of just 39, Feuermann’s pallbearers included Ormandy and conductors Arturo Toscanini and George Szell, pianists Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, and violinists Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist.
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During his tragically short career, Feuermann had already revolutionized cello playing, achieving a technical ease never before seen on the instrument—including perfect comfort in the uppermost register—while employing an opulent and seamlessly sustained tone, with a new kind of cello vibrato starting spot on the beginning of every note. For some, his technique amounted to playing the cello like a violin.
In fact, he had grown up with the sound of the violin in his ear. Born in 1902 in an area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire now belonging to Ukraine, Emanuel had a violin-prodigy older brother named Sigmund. Young Emanuel—nicknamed Munio—even attended Sigmund’s lessons with the famed Ševčík. In later life, he could play the Mendelssohn Concerto on a violin held cello-style—or alternately, play it on the cello at violin pitch.
Young Munio studied with Friedrich Buxbaum, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, and at eleven, made his debut with that orchestra, playing the Haydn D-major Concerto. After two years’ further study with the great Julius Klengel in Leipzig, at just sixteen, he took a professorship in Cologne. Feuermann made his first recording, of the Haydn, at nineteen, and followed it in 1928 with the world’s first record of the Dvořák Concerto. In 1929, his base moved to Berlin: he took a teaching position at the Hochschule für Musik there, and formed a string trio with violist-composer Paul Hindemith and violinist Josef Wolfsthal (and after Wolfsthal’s death, Szymon Goldberg).
With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, however, the Jewish Feuermann was removed from his position, and subsequently spent several years moving from country to country, touring as widely as events permitted, and performing with many of the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras. He lived briefly in London, where in 1935 he made a groundbreaking recording of the original version of the Haydn D, and premiered the Schönberg Concerto. Landing in America, he taught at the Curtis Institute, and joined forces with Jascha Heifetz and Rubinstein in what was quickly dubbed the “Million Dollar Trio.” He died in New York, as a result of negligence during routine surgery.
Despite his early death, Feuermann left behind many recordings, nearly all incredible. The historically significant Dvořák recording, with Taube and the Berlin Staatsoper, is notable both for its poor orchestral playing and for the many gifts Feuermann brings to bear: sumptuous sound, luscious legato, easy execution. A subtle master of the push and pull of rubato, he chooses very fast tempi, but never sounds hurried. In the similarly significant Haydn recording, Sargent conducting, the cellist is untroubled by Haydn’s difficulties, producing perfectly defined classical phrases and idiomatic passagework throughout. Other orchestral bounties include an intense Bloch Schelomo with Stokowski and Philadelphia, and a masterful Don Quixote with Ormandy and the same ensemble.
With his stupendous technique, rich and assertive sound, powerful force of personality, and predilection for fast tempi, Feuermann was a perfect partner for Heifetz, perhaps the only fellow string player who could meet the great violinist on fully equal terms. Their joint recordings include a thrillingly rugged Brahms Double with Ormandy and Philadelphia, a streamlined yet noble Beethoven “Archduke” by the Million Dollar Trio, and a Schubert B-flat Trio from the same ensemble, featuring gorgeous, restrainedly soulful playing from Feuermann in the Andante.
The Mendelssohn Sonata, played with Franz Rupp, benefits from Feuermann’s supple rhythmic styling and knack for dramatic melodic delivery. In the Reger G-major Solo Suite, the cellist sounds improvisatory yet disciplined, playing with an assurance that puts the listener at total ease. Feuermann’s rubato mastery is ideal for Russian exotica such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Hindu Song” from Sadko and Cui’s “Orientale.” His Bruch Kol Nidrei features beautiful position changes, and his Bloch “Prayer” from From Jewish Life, incredible expressivity of sound. Other delicious Feuermann short pieces include a brisk, elegantly direct Saint-Saëns “Swan,” a rhetorically commanding Japanese folksong, “Kojo no tsuki,” a suave Granados “Danse espagnole,” and a stunningly virtuosic Popper “Spinning Song,” happily available on video.
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