Leopold Godowsky was most famous for his ultra-virtuoso transcriptions of other composers, but this recital smartly adds several of his own original compositions. Emanuele Delucchi plays the hour of music on a Steinway from 1906, an instrument nearly identical in sound to today’s, but with an extra hint of warmth and, maybe, a very slight fragility in its tone.
The first work is a Passacaglia on the opening theme of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. That is, the short theme played by the cellos and basses, not the “main” theme introduced a moment later on clarinet. This theme only lasts about ten seconds, so Godowsky has time for 44 variations and a fugue on it. Relentless is a word you might use for the work, which as a whole is beautifully dark and troubled, very hard to play, and near-unstoppable in its momentum.
Twice, the composer backs himself into a corner by producing such a ferocious climax that the pianist must pause and begin with a fresh set of variations but that trade-off is worth it, and the piece has cumulative power to compensate for its repetition. Godowsky himself considered it his masterpiece, by the way.
There are also four poems, written between 1927 and 1931. These short works, about three minutes each, are full of surprising chromatic harmonies. The first seems to be a homage to Scriabin, while the second has an ingratiating salon-like melody. The title of No. 4, “Yearning”, is explained by its timing: Godowsky had just lost the use of his right hand after a heart attack.
The rest of the disc is taken up with transcriptions, most notably Godowsky’s supercharged renderings of Schubert songs and Johann Strauss’s waltz “Wine, Women and Song”. Here, the key is for pianist Emanuele Delucchi to dive head-first into this challenging music, producing as fluid and ear-pleasing a result as possible.
He succeeds brilliantly, as indeed he does all throughout. Delucchi is a specialist in this kind of repertoire, like an Italian Marc-André Hamelin. He is apparently the first Italian pianist to add Charles-Valentin Alkan’s solo Symphony to his repertoire, and is reportedly a composer himself. To the jaw-droppingly virtuoso playing, Delucchi adds his own booklet notes, which are slightly academic but interesting, and also discuss the historical piano. Amusingly, Delucchi and his translator always refer to Godowsky as “the Author,” with a capital A, as if referring to God.
With this disc, a new super-virtuoso announces his presence in the rarified realm of pianists who can successfully record such fiendish composers as Godowsky, Alkan, and (I’ll bet) Sorabji. He also makes a persuasive case for Godowsky to be taken seriously as a composer. Excellent sound quality from ever-reliable Piano Classics completes the picture.
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Passacaglia: 44 Variations, Epilogue, Cadenza, and Fugue on the opening theme of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony [15:12]
Five Schubert song transcriptions [15:01]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ständchen (arr. Godowsky) [2:31]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L’Arlésienne, adagietto (arr. Godowsky) [2:36]
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Canzonetta from Concerto Romantique (arr. Godowsky) [3:20]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Tango (arr. Godowsky) [2:33]
Four Poems [12:16]
“Wine, Women, and Song,” from “Symphonische Metamorphosen Johann Strauss’scher Themen” [8:49]
Triakontameron No. 11, “Alt Wien” [2:12]