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Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Piano Music - Volume 8
Java Suite (Phonoramas: Tonal Journeys for the Pianoforte) (1925) [48:01]
Part 1: Gamelan/Wayang-Purwa: Puppet Shadow Play/Hari Besaar: The Great Day [10:51]
Part 2: Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit/Boro Budur in Moonlight/The Bromo Volcano and the Sand Sea at Daybreak [8:34]
Part 3: Three Dances/ The Garden of Buitenzorg/In the Streets of Old Batavia [12:05]
Part 4: In the Kraton/In the Ruined Water Castle at Djokja/A Court Pageant in Solo [16:31]
Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss II No.3: Wine Women & Song [11:54]
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 29-30 November 2005
MARCO POLO 8.225274 [59:55]


The Java Suite by Leopold Godowsky is one of those great works that I have known about for many years – yet this is the first time I have had an opportunity to hear it. Let me state right away that it fulfils all my expectations – in fact it excels them. Like another reviewer in these pages I am not altogether happy about much of the ‘chinoiserie’ that passed for music in the first few decades of the last century. Rob Barnett mentions Albert Ketèlbey as an example of ‘postcard’ music from the East. Now I feel this is a little hard on Ketèlbey – he was not appealing to the same market as Godowsky - however I take the point. So I suppose I approached this disc with a little concern about the quality of the musical imagination. I need not have worried. To put it in a nutshell, Godowsky has given us a near-perfect fusion of Western pianism and Eastern exoticism. This is quite simply a masterpiece. I hesitate to use the word genius, but it comes close.

Of course Godowsky is perhaps best known for his complex 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes. This was a work that seemingly put the virtuosity into virtuosic piano music. Listeners to this work are treated to such delights as the interweaving of two Etudes simultaneously, the ‘reduction’ of a complex two-handed work for left hand alone, the addition of new counter-melodies and the ‘expansion’ of Chopin’s original piano figurations. It is a pity that some of Godowsky’s other music has been largely forgotten over the seventy-odd years since his death. However in recent years the gradual rediscovery of his transcriptions and original compositions has resulted in recordings of many of his becoming available to the piano enthusiast. The impressive Piano Sonata has been recorded by the Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67300), by the present pianist (Marco Polo 8.223899) and Adam Aleksander (ProPiano). Amazingly there are some seven recordings of the seemingly impossible Passacaglia, Variations (44), cadenza and Fugue on the opening of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. Apparently even Vladimir Horowitz gave up on this work stating that it would require “not two but six hands” to perform it. And finally, even the smaller original pieces and the Bach transcriptions are slowly being re-discovered by a small body of enthusiasts.                                                         

A few words about the composer may be of interest. Leopold Godowsky has often been described as being the ‘Pianist of Pianists’. Of course this may be an exaggeration and there may be other contenders for this accolade. But in Godowsky’s case there is much to recommend the honour. He fulfilled a number of roles in his 68 years. He was a composer, a great pianist, a teacher and a musicologist. He travelled the world - except Australia - as a recitalist. He wrote a deal of music for performance at his own recitals. In spite of the phenomenal difficulty of much of these works he did not wish to be known as a ‘keyboard acrobat’, yet it is hard to listen to some of his ‘paraphrases’ and not wonder if this ‘wish’ was a little disingenuous. However, the Java Suite does not fall into the category of ‘show off’ music. It is a cycle of twelve short tone poems. Of course they are not ‘easy’ but typically they are not ‘impossible.’ These are not descriptive in any crass sense. This is not “In a Persian Market” realism but a genuine attempt to convey “an intensely poetic feeling of exuberance, nostalgia and mystery.” (Luca Sabbatini review on Classics Today).

I know that this will probably seem like cribbing from other reviewers on MusicWeb but when I listened to the Java Suite for the first time the name of John Ireland sprang to my mind. This feeling has not been dissipated on my subsequent hearing. However I did also think of Cyril Scott and Kaikhosru Sorabji. Yet this is not music to play ‘hunt the influence’. It stands as a great work in its own right and deserves to be heard as such. It is entirely inappropriate to suggest that it is pastiche Debussy, Ravel or anyone else.

There is little to add to Colin Scott-Sutherland’s excellent exposition of the Java Suite and I heartily recommend all those interested in this music to peruse his review.

The extra work on this CD is the absolutely stunning Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss II – No.3 Wine Women & Song. This is certainly more than an encore; it is a major contribution to the world of piano transcription. This is a classic example of Leopold Godowsky’s skill as pianist, composer and arranger. It would make a fine introduction to any listener who baulked at taking on the 50 minute Java Suite or the complex Chopin Studies or the mind-bending Passacaglia.

I do not have the benefit of having heard Esther Budiardjo’s recording of the Java Suite (ProPiano PPR 224526) however I have heard most of the other contributions by Scherbakov to the Godowsky discography and I have to say that the playing on this present disc is as stunning as on the others in the series. The clarity of the recording is perfect. The programme notes are good but please read Colin Scott-Sutherland’s notes at the above link.

This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of romantic and virtuosic piano music. And do not forget the other seven volumes in this large and important recording project from Marco Polo.

John France 


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