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Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
53 Studies on the Chopin Études – Volume 1
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
rec. 2019, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Piano Music Volume 14
MARCO POLO 8.225372 [79:00]

It is logical that in this, Godowsky’s 150th birth year anniversary that some recordings of his works have been released. In a way it is a shame that it is 250 years since Beethoven was born as the latter rather overshadows the former as well as a vast number of other composers who won’t be afforded much publicity as the limelight will have been taken up by Ludwig. Anyway, no matter, as Godowsky isn’t exactly a household name and, despite his friendship with such famous people as Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, his musical star has declined hugely since his death. In his lifetime, he was revered as “The Buddha of the Piano” and as a superb interpreter, particularly of Chopin. He is also famed and feared for his awesomely difficult 53 studies after the Chopin études which have been recorded in their entirety only a few times, by supervirtuosos such as Marc-André Hamelin, Carol Grante (twice, just to make sure) and Francesco Libetta, amongst others. I’ve recently seen the scores for these incredible works and they are some of the most terrifyingly complex looking notation that I have ever seen gracing music manuscript paper! So, to add further to this pantheon of super virtuosi, we have Konstantin Scherbakov who is nearing the end of his mammoth 20+ year recording project of Godowsky piano music by including these 53 works on the last 2 volumes. I’ve been following this series since the beginning and I was hoping that he would include these works as they are full of amazing pianistic feats and are Godowsky’s crowning achievement.

Mr. Scherbakov has recorded a selection of 25 of the études for this disc so rather than having all the versions one after the other (as, for example Marc-André Hamelin does on his magnificent Hyperion set), you have just one of them before you proceed through the next étude from Chopin’s set. For someone who is unfamiliar with these works, this would make sense from a listening point of view as it follows the order of the originals more directly. Over this disc, we have one from each of the two sets Op.10 and Op.25 (except Op.25 no.7 which was never published) plus two from the Op.posth ones making up the 25 tracks in total.

The disc begins with Godowsky’s wonderful amplification of Chopin’s Op.10 no.1 with added arpeggios and clever counterpoint. There is no sense of slowing down for the difficulties here which are dispatched with aplomb. The same holds true in the second étude, based on Op.10 no.2 but more in the style of Liszt’s Transcendental Étude “Feux Follets” (S139 no.5). The next is a lovely left hand version of the E major Chopin étude sometimes called “Tristesse”. Here Godowsky’s arrangement is so cleverly done that you wouldn’t believe there is only 1 hand playing and Mr. Scherbakov makes a splendid job of it. Op.10 no.4 is hard enough in the original version but here Godowsky adds myriad details by moving all of it to the left hand alone. The contrasts between the phrases in the original and this version are all pointed up and I still find it hard to believe there is only 1 hand here. Chopin’s original “Black Keys” étude, Op.10 no.5 obviously sparked a huge amount of interest in Godowsky as there are no less than 7 versions of it! Mr. Scherbakov plays the first version which is quite close to Chopin’s but with the left hand taking the familiar right hand figuration, with added paprika and difficulty, all marvellously played here. Godowsky’s treatment of Op.10 no.6 is very strange, he adds rippling arpeggios to the work making it, if anything more sinister and tragic. The level of detail here is remarkable and has to be heard to be believed. The étude which follows is left in C major but turned into a wickedly difficult toccata. I don’t know how Mr. Scherbakov is able to translate the impossibly difficult music into sound here but he makes a marvellous job of it. Just sit back and marvel at the innumerable details! I have to say that I don’t particularly like Op.10 no.8 in the original set – but here Godowsky alters it to more of a workout for both hands which bounce around the keyboard in a most complex fashion. I especially like the darker section about 1 minute in where Mr. Scherbakov manages to shade the original major key version into the minor and back again in a most subtle way, it’s astounding. Chopin’s Op.10 no.9 is one of the easier of the original set, but here Godowsky adds details which Chopin never would have imagined. The declamatory section, about 1 minute in, is particularly well controlled and fades to nothing before the opening theme returns. The weirdly hypnotic ending is superbly played. Godowsky’s 20th étude is the second version of the Op.10 no.10 original but with all the detail in the left hand only. The rhythms are slightly different to the original but the essence of them is captured remarkably well. There is a danger here of overloading but tune with the accompaniment but Mr. Scherbakov does not put a finger wrong. There is a lot of as colour and shading here too, all negotiated marvellously. There is oddly only 1 Godowsky version of Op.10 no.11 in which the key is altered from E flat to A major and the piece is rewritten for left hand. This is amazing as it is necessary to impart some the peace of the original when the left hand is jumping about all over the place. This takes an amazing level of control which is perfectly applied here. The closing minute and a half is especially appealing as the colour and shading used is spot on. Lastly for Op.10, we have the “Revolutionary” étude but here in C sharp minor (rather than C minor) and impossibly arranged for left hand. This could sound clunky in the wrong hands (sorry, hand) but here it is nothing short of miraculous. The flickering accompaniment is perfectly controlled and executed.

Chopin’s Op.25 études continue in the same pattern as the Op.10 set so firstly we have no.1 in A flat major and here Godowsky leaves the key as in the original but adds a whole extra level of difficulty. This piece ripples along magnificently and is perfectly pedalled and the overall effect is quite beautiful. The second étude from Op.25 exists in 3 versions by Godowsky, here we have the second – marked Waltz. It’s not like an original Chopin waltz, this is something much darker and far more polyphonic. Again, there is a lot going on here and Mr. Scherbakov plays magnificently with the complexities. Next is the first version of Godowsky’s thoughts on Op.25 no.3 which is available in 2 versions, if you follow the ossias which Godowsky provided. This is a slightly bonkers piece with lots of trills and leaps and is fraught with awkward pianistic devilment. The ending is especially crazy but the last few seconds are bluesy in tone which this pianist seems to enjoy. Godowsky also takes considerable liberties with Op.25 no.4, transforming it from an étude into a polonaise which is appropriate as both Godowsky and Chopin were Polish. The texture here is very dark and angry except for the short happier bits which are interpolated in between the opening theme (which occurs several times). It’s a weird piece, the middle section is sunnier and serves as a trio where Chopin could almost be completely forgotten. The level of difficulty and technical wizardry required to play as well as this is fantastic here and leaves you wondering how he is able to play it. Similar liberties were taken with the following étude to turn it into a Mazurka – and it works very well. The following study shimmers sinisterly in double thirds and is somehow or other played incredibly smoothly – again I really don’t know how he does this. Study no.38 (after Op.25 no. 8) is nicely written in D flat major and sounds very plaintive here, even with all the added 6ths - it’s mostly a lot less frantic than Chopin’s original but a lot more polyphonic. It’s a superbly clever little work and the ending here is delightful. Chopin’s “Butterfly” Étude in G flat major, here is slightly augmented and additional filigree ornamentation is added to create a rather wonderful little piece which again is dispatched as if it were simple. I worked on Chopin’s “Octave” Étude (Op.25 no.10) many years ago but unfortunately never got it to sound like much. Godowsky’s version is rewritten entirely for the left hand - obviously, there is much redistribution of notes and clever rewriting to make it work which somehow, incredibly, it does. I really like the way that Mr. Scherbakov points up the melody early on in the stormy first section which gives the work its nickname. The middle section is an oasis of calm and is beautifully played. The ending is slightly different compared to Chopin’s but is splendid and very difficult - this is a magnificent performance of this étude. The so called “Winter Wind” Op.25 no.11 follows with the opening unaltered…then all hell breaks loose in a phenomenal barrage of notes with the scurrying accompaniment moved into the left hand and the right hand being given additional things to do as well. I sit open mouthed at the complexity here, it is mind boggling. There is no respite in the demands on the pianist here but it’s all taken in his stride and the result is just unbelievable. The Op.25 études conclude with a stormy piece, some nicknamed the “Ocean” which here is transcribed into C sharp minor, rather than C minor. The main tune here is surrounded by all manner of arpeggios and drama which Chopin would never had thought possible. This is an incredible conclusion to this set of études in any version and I really admire the pianism here.

Much later in his life, Chopin wrote 3 shorter études for the "Méthode des méthodes de piano" co-authored by Fetis and Moscheles. In the original version, these are more restrained and peaceful than many in the Op.10 and Op.25 sets and are more about rhythm and interactions between the voices in different hands. In étude no.44, Godowsky changes the original 3 against 4 rhythm to a stream of notes generating a piece which is, on the one hand more busy than the original, but on the other hand smoother in texture. The effect is marvellous and is superbly controlled here. The last piece on this disc is based on BI.130 no.2 but is in E major rather than A flat major and is a lot longer. The additional length comes from variations on the theme from the original which are decorated and augmented in harmonically complex ways and require a superb technique to bring it off. This is incredible – I especially love the way the melody floats above the texture in the background in the “second” variation – to do this as well as this takes superb skill and vast quantities of work! That is only the beginning as the following music becomes more complex before settling down around 3 minutes in to a much more introspective mood. The ending is especially effective and is fantastically played. The whole piece is an extraordinary creation, marvellously played throughout. It’s very easy to lose track of time listening to this wonderful performance of a masterpiece in piano writing.

In conclusion, this isn’t really a disc to listen to in one go - that would be overload for your ears and your brain – it’s rather something to be listened to in small sections. It’s also a disc which has to be listened to a lot to get your ears around it – perhaps in order to forget slightly the originals and open your mind to the polyphonic Godowskian treatment of them. I’ve found that with other recordings (for example) listening to all 4 versions of Op.25 no.2 in one sitting is fine – especially if you place them in musical context by listening to Chopin’s original first but the approach on this disc of (mostly) one from each set works extremely well. I’ve run out of superlatives here, so hats off to Mr Scherbakov - this recording is a magnificent feat of pianism, full of jaw dropping virtuosity and some lovely colouring throughout. He has done an utterly amazing job in recording all of the sometimes nightmarishly difficult pieces on this CD in such an absorbing and interesting way. The cover notes are useful and suitably concise but for those interested in further reading, Jeremy Nicholas’s wonderful book, “Godowsky – The Pianists Pianist”, is well worth a read. Needless to say I’m really looking forward to the next volume of these études which will complete this phenomenal series.

Jonathan Welsh

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