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
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.