Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
The Art of Transcription

Chopin: Etudes: Nos 5 [5:10], 13 [3:45], 34 [4:22] and 45 [5:25]
J. S. Bach: Violin Sonata, BWV 1001 [16:29]
Schubert: Heidenröslein [1:54], Wiegenlied [2:55], Morgengrüss [3:59]; Gute Nacht [4:14]; Ballet Music from ‘Rosamunde’ [2:49]; Moment musical, D 780 No. 3 [2:08]
Schumann: Du bist wie eine Blume [1:49]
J. Strauss II: Symphonic Metamorphosis on themes from “Wein, Weib und Gesang”
Albeniz: Tango Op 165, No 2 [2:39]
Saint-Saëns: Le Cygne {2:50]
Stafford Smith: The Star-Spangled Banner [2:04]
Laurent Wagschal (piano)
rec. l’Auditorium Couer de Ville de Vincennes, July 2015
EVIDENCE EVCD026 [76:03]

Leopold Godowsky was one of the greatest pianists of his time and he left a large catalogue of more than four hundred compositions devoted almost exclusively to the piano. Of these over half are transcriptions, arrangements or paraphrases, with quite a few intended to extend the technical possibilities of the originals (e.g. Chopin studies arranged for the left hand alone).

Over the years, several virtuosi have taken a range of different approaches to the question of how best to programme these technically difficult pieces in concert and on record. Konstantin Scherbakov is going the whole hog and is recording all of the piano music for Marco Polo. Other pianists, such as Marc-Andre Hamelin, have made acclaimed recordings of all the Chopin study transcriptions and a few other large pieces, such as the sonata. Boris Berezovsky has programmed a mixture of Chopin studies coupled with the Godowsky arrangements of them—an approach very much applauded in Tony Hayward’s review. Carlo Grante has given us all three of the Bach violin sonata transcriptions. However, if you don’t want your audience to have to listen to all the works of a given type in a single sitting then an alternative approach is to programme a mixture of pieces in the manner of Shura Cherkassky’s recitals, and this is the approach taken here.

This disc has already been reviewed elsewhere. I was going to take the approach adopted by several other reviewers and just enjoy the music on its own terms, without attempting to compare individual performances in any detail. The first time through, like other reviewers, I was impressed with the facility and sensitivity of this French pianist. It takes a considerable technique to play these pieces as well as this and I enjoyed the recital, although I was rather left with the feeling I get after listening to recordings of Jorge Bolet, who was never able to convince me that he had the complete musicianship and technique for many of the more difficult pieces in his repertoire. Here, Laurent Wagschal gets around all the notes but he tends to be a shade heavyweight, as exemplified by his performances of Heidenrӧslein and the last piece on the disc—the transcription of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. I suspect that the piano he uses does not help. The sleeve provides no details of the make, so far as I can see, but it doesn’t sound like a Steinway. It might be a Fazioli; but, whatever it is, it is a bit of a monster, with a slight edge to the tone which I don’t quite like. Also, it is very closely recorded, although the actual recording quality is excellent. At any rate it was these aspects that made me decide to go further and compare a few of the performances of individual pieces with those of others.

In Chopin’s study transcriptions, the two leading interpreters are Berezovsky and Hamelin. Not having the Berezovsky disc at hand, I referred to Hamelin’s stupendous set of all the study transcriptions, which many would regard as the reference standard. Sure enough, in all these four pieces Hamelin achieves a smoother legato and is usually considerably more sprightly, sometimes 20-25% faster and making Wagschal sound positively deliberate by comparison. That said, what any pianist has to contend with is pretty incredible. I once gave a piano recital with spoken introductions, where I programmed the Op 10, No 5 and Op 25, No 9 studies so that I could then introduce the Godowsky “Badinage”, which combines the two, with the words “And now one in each hand!”, and I recall only just making it through the piece. Here, the booklet helpfully reproduces the opening page of Godowsky’s transcription, for the left hand only, of the Study Op 10, No 6, and the score alone provides a clear indication of the monumental hurdle to be overcome.

As an aside, pianophiles may care to note that the otherwise fully comprehensive set of fifty-four study transcriptions recorded by Hamelin omits the alternative version of the Badinage that I learned—the same one that was recorded by Doris Pines on an old Genesis LP recital—and I suspect that the master was somewhat miffed when I had the temerity to ask him if he’d ever get round to recording that as well!

Back to the present disc, in the Bach sonata transcription, the comparison was with Scherbakov and honours were about even. If anything the recorded piano sound is better here than on the Marco Polo disc. Wagschal’s performance of the transcription of Strauss’s “Wine, Women and Song” has plenty of swagger but, in this piece, Cherkassky is at his mercurial best and he plays with considerably more delicacy. That said, his version unfortunately has substantial cuts so a full comparison is not possible. Wagschal’s Schubert Moment Musical, however, sounds positively clumsy alongside Cherkassky’s. Elsewhere, Wagschal’s “Le Cygne” is suitably watery, but the music still sounds more delicate in Cherkassky’s hands. So it continues. I couldn’t immediately find a competing performance for “Gute Nacht”, but I was left with the feeling that this song doesn’t quite get the bleakness it requires.

Overall then, this is a recital that leaves me with mixed feelings. In terms of the individual pieces the best alternative performances of most of them are worth seeking out. As a recital programme, an alternative I find preferable, with several of the pieces here, is Cherkassky’s, although this currently seems to be only available on the Australian Eloquence label, so it may be difficult to obtain. All that said, on its own terms, Wagschal’s recital is very listenable, quite impressive and very well recorded.
Bob Stevenson

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