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Homage to Godowsky
Alexander Gugnin (piano)
rec. 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) is familiar as the author of some of the most transcendentally difficult piano music, both original and transcriptions as well as many more, technically approachable miniatures. Rachmaninov wrote that “Godowsky is the only musician of his age who has given a lasting, a real contribution to the development of piano music” and whilst there is interest in his original works it is his development of piano technique that has influenced composers and pianists alike. It is fitting therefore that many of the works dedicated to him are studies and, for the most part, that is what this intriguing release concentrates upon.

This is the kind of album I dreamed of as a young collector and even now there is a frisson even scanning the contents; a huge resurgence of interest in, even passion for the golden age of the composer-pianist means that there are recordings of all but three of these pieces but it is really wonderful to have them collected together in wonderful sound and in such finely honed performances. Gugnin is a craftsman of the highest order and if he tends not to to take these pieces at the care-free pace that pianists like Ignaz Friedman, Gunnar Johansen or Simon Barere do there is no denying that every facet of each work is displayed to its best. Gugnin has the measure of all this music but doesn't feel the need to push on to make effect; rather he takes time to grade his dynamics, to give eye to every detail and to bring a crystalline clarity to all his fingerwork – I'm sure that Godowsky, perfectionist extraordinaire that he was, would have approved.

As to the music itself there is really only one piece here written by a major composer; the final track is Liszt's familiar La Campanella, though in this instance it is Busoni's “newly edited” version of the work. Gugnin certainly captures Paganini's 'little bell' perfectly here. The most substantial collection by one composer is the set of Charakterskizzen by Godowsky's friend Josef Hofmann. The last of this set, Kaleidoskop, has a certain familiarity in that it was a favourite of Shura Cherkassky and has since been recorded by Marc André-Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67275 review). There are two alternative recordings of the complete set; Artem Yasynskyy on Grand piano (GP675) and Fabiana Biasini's lovely CD of Hofmann's piano music (Edition Hera 02120 review); both of these are absolutely worth hearing. Of the 4 pieces I think it is Nenien, ('to nowhere'), that impressed me most; it is almost heartbreaking at times especially in Gugnin's performance.

Beyond this there are treasures aplenty; Blumenfeld's beautiful left hand study, Sternberg's delicately poetic and almost Schumann-like Study in F (a far cry from his finger-twisting C minor study recorded so dazzlingly by Hofmann), the very obscure Scherzo-étude by Italian composer and pianist Eugenio Pirani – a puckish little miniature with treacherous left hand leaps. This is the first I have heard of Pirani but I would like to hear more of his music; apparently he wrote a large number of piano pieces as well as Venetian Scenes for piano and orchestra – maybe this would be an obscure prospect for Hyperion's own Romantic Piano Concerto series (coupled with some Pick-Mangiagalli perhaps)? Alongside the Blumenfeld, familiar from Simon Barere's famous recordings, is the étude for left hand by Ossip Gabrilowitsch, St Petersburg born and a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky whose own compositions also grace this set. This is a deeply passionate piece with its drawn out, yearning Russian melody and is reminiscent of Godowsky's left hand version of Chopin's Op.10 No.6 in its layout.

A pair of little surprises are the Rhapsodie études by Holbooke. His orchestral music is beginning to appear on the scene but his piano music has largely been ignored. Panagiotis Trochopoulos has recorded all ten of these studies alongside the eight nocturnes and other works on two discs for Cameo Classics (review ~ review). These are well worth seeking out if you are taken with the two studies recorded here. Fleet and nimble both pianists make a good case for these pieces; Trochopoulos' dark night is a good deal stormier than Gugnin's though the latter is more faithful to Holbrooke's score and he captures the caprice of the fourth study more successfully.

After listening to some pianists of earlier generations in this repertoire I find that I am not utterly convinced by Gugnin's generally relaxed tempi. Listen to the glorious lilt in Friedman's recording of his Music box (review); he takes 2:19 to Gugnin's 3:44. In Abram Chasin's own recording of his Prelude in G flat (Victor 1573 on International Piano Archives, Maryland records IPAM1206) he is that touch faster (he takes 0:58 to Gugnin's 1:30) and the phrasing sounds more natural. Likewise, Gunnar Johansen in Friedman's étude from op.33 is positively swashbuckling, more akin to Friedman's own playing, though admittedly he makes less of the dynamics and the sound is truly abominable (Johansen's Friedman series on 7 cassettes was recorded at his home on his own Artist Direct label – they deserve remastering and issuing).

This is a very minor caveat however and I do recommend this release. The pianism is startling and Gugnin is a virtuoso in the truest sense, blessed not only with an enormous technique but with a poet's sensibility, a keen ear for texture and the gift of crafting each piece as if it were a masterpiece.

Jeremy Nicholas, the initiator of this project and author of the detailed notes, mentions other music dedicated to Godowsky –there are works by composers including Reinhold Gličre, Emil Liebling, Leo Ornstein, Issay Dobrowen and the famous Polka de WR by Rachmaninov. Since there is apparently enough to fill a second disc it would be good to have an Homage to Godowsky II from this source before too long.

A rich vein of virtuoso romantic rarities lovingly played.

Rob Challinor

Josef HOFMANN (1876-1957)
Charakterskizzen Op.40 (1908)[21:20]
Felix BLUMENFELD (1863-1931)
Étude pour la main gauche seule Op.36 (1905)[5:57]
Emil von SAUER (1962-1942)
Étude de concert No.19 – Vision (pub.1911)[4:34]
Eugenio PIRANI (1852-1939)
Scherzo-Étude Op.67 (1901)[4:09]
Abram CHASINS (1903-1987)
Prelude No.13 in G flat major Op.12 No.1 (pub.1928)[1:30]
Ignaz FRIEDMAN (1882-1948)
Drei Klavierstücke Op.33 (1910)[8:30]
Ossip GABRILOWITSCH (1878-1936)
Étude for the left hand Op.12 No.2 (1917)[5:04]
Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Rhapsodie-Étude 'La fantastique' Op.42 No.4 (1903)[2:07]
Rhapsodie-Étude 'une nuit ténébreuse' Op.42 No.5 (1903)[5:59]
Constantin von STERNBERG (1852-1924)
Étude de concert No.5 in F major Op.115 (1904)[2:36]
Theodor LESCHETIZKY (1830-1915)
Trois morceaux Op.48 (1909)[7:36]
Theodor SZÁNTÓ (1877-1934)
Troisičme étude orientale (en quartes) (1932)[3:11]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Melodia appassionata Op.81 No.6 (c.1908)[4:18]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) arr. Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Grande étude de Paganini in G sharp minor 'La campanella' (1832/1915)[5:28]

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