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Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Java Suite (1925)
World Premiere Recording
Alexander TANSMAN (1900-)
La Flute de Bambou dans la foret de Bandoeng
Le Gamelang de Bali
Esther Budiardjo (piano)
rec. 12-13 Aug 1999, New Jersey
PROPIANO CD PPR224529 [60.38]

Jorge Bolet, in his introduction to Jeremy Nicholas's study of Leopold Godowsky (Appian Publications 1989) writes "a name revered by those few who have made unbiased examination (my italics) of his contribution to the world of music" - and goes on to write "He developed the polyrhythmic and polymelodic possibilities of the piano to a degree that no other composer has achieved. By so doing he became the last of the lineage of innovators for the piano: Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff." This assessment of a composer/pianist whose fame has been long restricted to a discerning few and whose detractors are numerous will inevitably be thought fulsome. Yet such an accolade from such a musician as Bolet prompts serious investigation into Godowsky's standing - as musician: composer and pianist.

It is difficult today to appreciate fully the regard in which he was held by his contemporaries: " a phenomenon in an age of phenomena". For in the world of the piano this was the era of the great lions of the keyboard: Busoni, Pachmann, Leschetizky, Hofman, Rachmaninoff, Paderewski. The list is endless. That Godowsky occupied a prime place in this hierarchy we are only told - for his recordings are few, difficult to obtain - and the music (apart from the monumental Chopin Studies transcriptions, daunting even for an accomplished pianist and quite unsuitable as an introduction to his work) unobtainable except in expensive photocopy, or, very rarely, in secondhand shops. His daughter Dagmar however remembers "Everyone came to us. It was not unusual to come home and find Paderewski, Chaliapin, Kreisler, Hofman, Caruso, Elman, Damrosch…….." (quoted in the Jeremy Nicholas book). We know his students called him "Mr God". His friend and compatriot Josef Hofman, after a phenomenal private recital, remarked "Never forget what you have heard tonight - never lose the memory of that sound - it is tragic that the public have never heard Popsy as only he can play."

What we can however roundly assert, if we take the unbiased view advocated by Bolet, is that his piano writing is the most innovative, the most intricate and musically imaginative of its time, exquisite above all in texture, with an individual melodic sensitivity (like that of Medtner, not always fully understood or appreciated) which is embedded in harmonies that defy description in the usual terminology of classical/romantic/impressionist/neo-classical. Perhaps when one thinks of Reger and Joseph Marx it is to all intents and purposes late-romantic. But while this might suffice in consideration of his original compositions it gives little clue to the body of his transcriptions which virtually stand by themselves - unlike anything from Liszt to Schulz-Evler. The secret I think lies in Godowsky's great sense of architectonic structure. Above all it is piano music for the pianist - who alone can fully appreciate the subtleties and craftsmanship which, in performance, often escapes the listener's ear, aware only of the rich colourful sound.

Colour, often of exotic shades, permeates all his music - even in the much maligned transcriptions. These are in effect new works in their own right in which Godowsky's purpose is regularly misunderstood as simply pursuing sensational effects for their own sake. One has only to listen, nay to study, the superbly sensitive transcriptions of the Bach 'Cello Suites - in particular the C minor Sarabande - to realise how mistaken this is, and how in a kind of religious fervour Godowsky approached these works: "To explore inner meanings, to probe hidden beauties: to give utterance to vaguely suggested thoughts: to project undivulged ideas - inarticulate sub-conscious impressions - was for me a labour of love and an inexhaustible source of inspiration". (Foreword). He spoke also of "the master's supreme powers in contrapuntal style and emotional polyphony" (again my italics). Godowsky felt he had to defend himself against his detractors and purists and stated that he "wished to make clear that I have never introduced any themes, motifs or counter-melodies which were not a logical outgrowth of the inherent musical content." These transcriptions are a supreme achievement to which he brought not only a reverence but also a unity of mind with the Master and also something not unlike the ingenuity and (musical) strategy of a master chess player. It is good that in addition to the famous Chopin Study transcriptions we can now hear, in spectacular performances, the Piano Sonata, and the great Passacaglia even if the sprawling Sonata is in some ways of less value in his work than the exquisite watercolour of his treatment of Saint-Saëns' "Le Cygne" which is of a delicacy belying its virtuosity.

Paradoxically the composition of his 'Java Suite' began almost humbly in a desire to write 'end of recital pieces', just as the magisterial Bach works were designed, in Godowsky's eyes, to provide material suitable to begin a recital! The Suite was the first of half a dozen projected works which he entitled Phonoramas - tonal journeys for the pianoforte to be based on themes and melodies from diverse parts of the world to which he had travelled. These, as well as Java, were to include Japan, China, India and Turkey. In the event only the Java Suite (1924) was actually completed. And in fact only two fragments of indigenous music were used. In the third piece - "Hari Besaar"- the melodic material is entirely original, but within an exotic texture that is truly evocative of his Javanese experience. This kind of exoticism ideally suits the richly woven tapestry of sound that Godowsky creates in his imaginative writing - complex patterns yet expressed "in as musical a manner as I can, but accessible to laymen as well as to the serious musician". (letter LG to MA 20/12/23). "I never tried" says Godowsky " for effects of sonority and picturesqueness in my compositions, and it will amuse me to branch off in a new direction" (ibid). They are not however, simply picture postcards, but evoke something of the ethos of the people and their life. In each piece some central melodic strand seems to suggest human consciousness within the pictorial canvas. To describe them as 'impressionistic' is I suppose superficially correct - yet although the 'impressions' are of places with exotic names and pictorial beauty, the impressions are more accurately of a spiritual/emotional experience awakened in the composer - and also of an 'atmosphere' which, almost tangibly, surrounds these places. The translation of these 'impressions' into pianistic sound is astonishingly beautiful - described by Sorabji as "worthy to place in the same rank as the great 'Iberia' Suite of Albeniz which they far surpass in variety of mood, character and pianistic resource". ('Mi Contra Fa' p.64.)

The overall scheme, originally intended as a three-section form for each piece (designed to express the life of the people (Allegro), their poetic nature (Lento) and the Dance) became a four-part form of twelve pieces, each section consisting of three pieces. All are in duple/quadruple time as is all Javanese music (just as Godowsky's "Triakontameron" and "Walzermasken" are in triple time.)

The sonority of the first piece "Gamelan" pervades the whole Suite. Godowsky had certainly heard the Gamelan orchestra in the Paris Grande Exposition Universelle (1889) but had experienced it the year before, visiting Java as an impressionable youth of nineteen. In the Foreword to the Suite he wrote:

"The sonority of the Gamelan is so weird, spectral, fantastic and
bewildering the native music so elusive, vague, shimmering and
singular, that on listening to this new world of sound I lost my
sense of reality, imagining myself in a realm of enchantment."

But anyone who thinks that the dazzle of effect hides a paucity of melodic invention let him play a piece such as "The Gardens of Buitenzorg" (the 8th piece of the Suite) condensing the structure chordally, and listen to the result.

The second piece "Waygang -Purwa" depicts, in its curious little posturing melody, the shadow-play of puppetry behind a screen of white silk, echoing the native belief that shadows represent the ancestral spirits. The joyous bustle of "Hari Besaar" - the Great Fair - is alive with arguing traders, mysterious sidelong glances of dusky maidens - its joyous central melody recalling the music of Busoni's "Red Indian Diary".

The second section begins with a picture of "Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit". "On every side are jabbering monkeys, hundreds of them jumping from tree to tree … others nearer the ground are springing on and off the roofs of the small hotel and bath-houses … " a scene full of sparkling humour brilliantly evoked in an Allegro scherzando Toccata.

In complete contrast the mysterious ruined temple of Boro Budur is bathed in moonlight "an uncanny melancholy mood permeates the whole atmosphere." The impression both seen and felt is one of desolation which Godowsky describes as "the feeling of inevitable decay and dissolution of all things earthly". Surely here however we can detect, in the piano writing, the influence of Ravel?

The Bromo Volcano is depicted as in a colossal sunrise on the Sand Sea in which some awesome spectacle alternates between exultation and terror. This piece perhaps the most obviously virtuosic, with all the rhapsodic romanticism of Rachmaninoff - yet ending in a molto tranquillo passage of great tenderness - "the mere consciousness that such elemental powers exist alleviates the pain of living - an overpowering feeling of humility, of compassion and tenderness towards all things alive, a passionate adoration for the unknown source of all consciousness, filled the Soul …"

The seventh piece consists of three contrasting Dances in which are enshrined traditionally the spirit of the Javanese people - the third of which has another joyous melody which finally becomes unbearably nostalgic, recalling those "yesterdays that look back with a smile through tears" of "Alt Wien"

The final bar of this piece pre-echoes the following, as if Godowsky was emphasising his own love for what is one of his most beautiful compositions. It is as if he was saying "listen to this….." No more exquisite impression in pianistic terms has ever been conceived than "The Gardens of Buitenzorg". "Why do certain scents produce unutterable regrets, insatiable longings, indefinable desires?" This sensuously beautiful music recalls Dunsany's "Bethmoora" (1918):

"In little gardens, at the desert's edge
Men beat the tambang and the tittibuk
And blew melodiously the zootibar
……….While here and there one
Played upon the kalipac"

a fragrant sound-world that surely belongs to the story books?

"The Streets of Old Batavia" throng with a cosmopolitan crowd and with the sounds of the Orient and the colours of the bazaars. As we enter the perfumed courtyard of the Kraton, the residence of the Sultan and his entourage, we hear the drowsy swarming of gongs, the plash of fountains. "It is evening: quaint scenes charm our vision. Faint sounds of the entrancing Gamelan fill the fragrant air. The seemingly unreal reality casts a hypnotic spell over our consciousness …", a stately pentatonic melody suggesting a small procession.

Near the Kraton of Djokja (Djakarta) stand the crumbling remains of the Water Castle - and here again in the final watery bars the music of Ravel comes to mind, for Godowsky must surely have known "Jeux d'Eau." Whole tone colour abounds.

The final scene is inevitably a dramatic peroration - full of the pageantry of a royal procession, the Sultan preceded by court musicians, jugglers and acrobats in a fitting dénouement of this tonal travelogue.

Alexandre Tansman's three pieces of similar origins - evoking the same sultry atmosphere with a delicately improvisatory sound, are perhaps more than mere 'fillers' - yet in the shadow of the Godowsky they pale by comparison. The flutter of the bamboo flute and the sound of the inevitable Gamelan however has a vitality that suggests that Tansman is more down to earth than his compatriot.

This recording, beautifully clear, will open up a new world to many listeners. It astonishes me that this is a world premiere recording, and that none of our young pianists (to whom today the prodigious difficulties seem little problem) seem willing to explore these byways in music (which regrettably these pieces have now become.) Fortunately for us now this thoughtful young Jakarta-born pianist is in command of, not only a powerful technique which is demonstrable, but has the insight and sensitivity to shun any kind of showmanship and to evoke the very spirit of these long ignored pieces. The spirits, after all, are her own ancestors.

It is fascinating, too, to compare her vital playing with the faded loveliness of Godowsky's own recording of "The Gardens of Buitenzorg"- a pastel compared with her Brangwyn-esque depth of colour - certainly gouache if not oils: to compare also Saperton's frantic picture of "The Streets of Old Batavia" with her restrained, yet bustling picture. Perhaps the nearest comparison is with the playing of Doris Pines whose "Chattering Monkeys" are only a little more breathless than Budiardjo's. Surely this brilliant young pianist will explore those other works: the Triakontameron and the Walzermasken. Let us be greatly indebted to her for the present.

For those whose abilities at the keyboard cannot match the requirement of these pieces but are anxious to explore the rich tonal worlds of a composer far removed from the arid world of today, let them seek out - in photocopy or from libraries - such delicious things as his transcription of "Calm is the Night" (Böhm's famous melody), the Rameau Sarabande (Renaissance No.1), his arrangement of Kreisler's "Rondino on a theme of Beethoven", 'Alt Wien' (the eleventh of the 'Triakontameron'), the two Waltz poems and, for the more advanced, 'Le Cygne'.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

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