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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Selection of Études with transcriptions by Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Op.10 No.1 in C major – Godowsky transcription ‘Diatonisch’ [4’14]
Op.10 No.2 in A minor – Godowsky’s second transcription ‘Ignis Fatuus’ [3’22]
Op.10 No.4 in C sharp minor – Godowsky transcription for left hand [4’37]
Op.10 No.5 in G sharp major – Godowsky transcriptions in C major ‘Study on White Keys’ and in A minor ‘Tarantella’ [5’40]
Op.10 No.6 in E flat minor – Godowsky transcription for left hand [7’23]
Op.10 No.12 in C minor – Godowsky transcription for left hand in C sharp minor [5’36]
Op.25 No.1 in A flat major – Godowsky’s second transcription [5’16]
Op.25 No.5 in E minor – Godowsky’s second transcription in C sharp minor ‘Mazurka’ [6’35]
Godowsky transcription of Op.10 No.5 and Op.25 No.9 combined in G flat major ‘Badinage’ [1’34]
Godowsky transcription of Op.10 No.11 and Op.25 No.3 combined in F major [2’46]
Godowsky: Alt-Wien (Triakontameron, No.11) [2’00]
Godowsky transcription of Waltz Op.64 No.1 in D flat major ‘Minute’ [3’19]
Boris Berezovsky (piano)
Recorded live at the Maltings, Snape, Suffolk, 19-20 April 2005
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62258-2 [54’32]


This disc has already caused something of a critical stir, being variously a Gramophone Editors’s Choice, a BBC Music Magazine Disc of the Month and a CD of the Week on Radio 3’s CD Review. This gave me a slightly keener anticipation than usual and I wasn’t disappointed.

I have heard Berezovsky live twice and have a number of his discs. When on top form he really does stand with the best and a clear line to a previous generation of Russian greats is evident. He can also be uneven, and I remember being underwhelmed by, of all things, a Rachmaninov 2 that should have been meat and drink to a pianist of Berezovsky’s stature and intelligence. There is no doubt that this Chopin/Godowsky recital finds him at his imperious best, the phenomenal technique and innate musical sensibilities put at the service of music representing the height of the Romantic piano.

The Godowsky transcriptions have always aroused controversy but I have to say Berezovsky’s sensible decision to place his selection alongside the originals is a masterstroke and the first time, as far as I’m aware, that this has been done on disc. It gives the perfect opportunity to hear Chopin pure and unadorned, followed by what is best described as a metamorphosis rather than a transcription. The opening C major Étude is as good an illustration as any. Chopin’s glorious inspiration, a subtle marrying of poetry and arpeggio exercise, is transformed into what Bryce Morrison’s liner note calls ‘a massive carillon of sound’, Godowsky turning the arpeggiated figure into a seething mass of contrary motion whilst still managing to keep the melody and harmony intact. This goes for all the transcriptions and if you opt to follow a score of the Chopin originals, you will be able to follow it for the Godowsky re-workings.

It’s hard to point to favourites but I’ve always loved his cleverer inspirations, especially where two Études are made into one, as when Op.10 No.5 and Op.25 No.9 become the famous ‘Badinage’, a piece that featured in Godowsky’s legendary Berlin debut in 1905. Actually this transcends mere clever and becomes truly inspired, as do his equally famous (or notorious) left hand studies. Godowsky earned a few nicknames in his career, one of them being ‘The Apostle of the Left Hand’ and these studies, which make up twenty two of the fifty three transcriptions, re-defined piano technique in the post-Liszt era. Berezovsky chooses just two but revels in their complexities, especially the ‘Revolutionary’ C minor, whose fiery intricacies Godowsky transfers to one hand with amazing ingenuity.

All these pieces were written, of course, for Godowsky himself, the ‘Pianist’s Pianist’ as he became known. The New York Times’ chief critic Harold C. Schoenberg, in his seminal book ‘The Great Pianists’ devoted most of a chapter to him and concluded ‘In his day it was said he was composing for a future generation of pianists. If so, that generation has not yet arrived’. Well, this was 1966 and now, thirty years later, there are a growing number of recordings. I grew up with Jorge Bolet’s selection, played with supreme grace and subtlety but slightly lacking that last ounce of devil-may-care bravura. The superhuman virtuosity evident on Marc-André Hamelin’s Hyperion set of the complete collection makes it a must for Godowsky fans, but I have to say that Berezovsky is easily his equal in technical terms and does have that invaluable trump card of juxtaposing the originals – after all, hearing the full set of transcriptions one after another can lead to overkill. That said, this Warner disc is only 54 minutes (my only gripe) but of such quality that I could have taken a few more.

It only remains to be said that recording quality is excellent, as is Bryce Morrison’s enthusiastic note. The disc starts with brief, polite applause and finishes with rapturous cheering, something I would have been actively joining in. Disc of the Month? It just has to be!

Tony Haywood

 

 



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