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

I am very pleased that Hyperion have seen fit to mark Godowsky’s 150th birth year anniversary with a collection of works which were dedicated to him. Godowsky was a pianist who, in his time, was revered as a superb interpreter and, as a result, had many pieces dedicated to him by famous composers of the time and some of these (receiving their first recordings) are included here.

Hofmann, like Godowsky, was another much admired pianist in his day and he too wrote a fair amount of music, most of which is hardly ever (if at all) played these days. His most famous piece is actually the last of these “Character Pieces” is entitled “Kaleidoscop”. The first one of the set is a perfect little creation called “Vision” which contains some wonderfully delicate playing in between the more powerful and agitated music. I don’t know if it’s a side effect of the title but I hear hints of Liszt’s 6th Transcendental Étude in the craggy and powerful central section. The following étude is entitled “Jadis” which starts off as a minuet but slowly transfigures into something much more modern and complex. It’s got some very interesting key changes and harmonies and takes a while to get your ears around. The third piece is a little more straightforward and, as the title suggests seems to go nowhere but the music certainly leads somewhere – maybe the intention is that it is about the travelling, rather than arriving? Nonetheless, it’s mostly in F minor so the overall atmosphere is rather murky and sinister. There are chinks of light though – especially around 2 minutes in which are superbly controlled and dovetail nicely into the more menacing music. Overall, this is a strange work, sometimes bleak and at other times rather touching and it is excellently played throughout. The final piece of the set is the “Kaleidoscop” which is harmonically complex and full of virtuosity. There is some amazing interleaved writing especially about 2 minutes in and some very intricate passagework as the piece draws to a close. It’s a super virtuosic 5 and a half minute work and Mr. Gugnin plays it superbly throughout.

Blumenfeld could be categorised as a “one hit wonder” – the only piece most people have heard of by him is the étude for the left hand only which is included in this recording as track 5. Personally, I think that is a bit of a shame as his other works (such as the Preludes and Impromptus) are fascinating and his Symphony is stunning. Anyway, here the étude is played wonderfully – it’s hard to believe that one hand is playing as there is so much detail included. The opening is really nicely nuanced and the differentiation of the main theme and the filigree ornamentation is great; to sum up this is another wonderfully memorable performance.

Emil von Sauer is mostly remembered for his editions of other composers’ works rather than as a composer himself. However, he wrote a fair amount of music and the études are the best of this. The étude (also entitled “Vision”) is a tricky little piece full of complex leaps, parallel 3rds and assorted other hurdles, most of which occur in the first and last parts of the work, separated by a more reflective central section which hints at Chopin. This rather boisterous and cheerful piece whizzes past very quickly and is dispatched with aplomb.

Although I’ve heard of most of the other composers on this disc, Pirani is someone I’d not hitherto encountered. His “Scherzo-Étude” is a finger-twisting piece which at least deserves to be better known, if only as an encore. It’s fantastically well played here and puts me in mind of some of Moszkowski’s more virtuosic études. There is a lot of leaping about and intricate passagework for the right hand here while the left hand provides a rather nice tune before the situation is reversed and the right hand takes over again. The title is rather appropriate as the work is certainly cheerful and will make you smile.

Abram Chasins was another composer and writer I’d heard of but not heard much by. His Preludes, published in several sets and dedicated to various other pianists including Godowsky, are hardly well known but, on the strength of this wonderful little piece, they deserve to be. There are hints at Chopin here and some more complex harmony which is perhaps more Debussy-like in nature, all played brilliantly.

Ignazy Friedman was another superstar virtuoso pianist from around the turn of the 20th century who also composed. His Op.33 comprises of three short works, none of which is at all easy and give the pianist a chance to show various aspects of their technique. The first of the set starts off rather mournfully, putting me in mind of late Brahms but soon changing to something more cheerful. The contrasts between the moods are wonderfully judged and the piece is a fine little creation, played with superb skill and control. Next follows a happy and short Mazurka – here spelled “Mazourka”. This piece is not like a Chopin mazurka, or maybe, to be more accurate, it’s maybe the sort of thing Chopin could have written if he’d lived longer. The third piece is a really charming and beautiful “Tabatière à musique” – something like a musical snuffbox and is perfectly and very deftly played.

Gabrilowitsch was another famous (in his day) pianist and composer who has all but vanished from sight. This is a shame as, on the strength of this and the couple of other works I’ve heard of his, he had a gift for writing very evocative short piano works. Obviously, this is not at all easy to play and it takes a pianist of considerable skill to bring off this étude for the left hand only – something which Mr. Gagnin does with ease. As with the Blumenfeld on track 5, it’s hard to believe there is only one hand operating here.

Joseph Holbrooke has had a few works recorded on disc recently but I’d never heard these particular pieces before. The first of these 2 pieces is a witty, rather marvellous slightly jazzy work called “La fantastique” which is full of difficulties and interesting harmonic touches. It’s a shame it is so short as it’s a really great little work! The second piece is more complex but overall less amusing – there are hints of Debussy here and there and the subtitle gives absolutely nothing away. Both pieces contain music which makes you smile and I shall be investigating Holbrooke more thoroughly as, if these two pieces anything to judge by, his music should be well worth hearing. The performance is again fabulous and full of colour.

At least some of the composers on this disc are vaguely familiar, I’d never even heard of Sternberg, much less knew that he was so prolific – this is his Op.115 and comprises of a rather magnificent but sadly rather short, concert étude which is perfectly played here.

Leschetitzky has at least remained well known as a teacher, if not as a composer, but here we have a really terrific performance of his 3 pieces of Op.48. Firstly we have a suitably humorous “Prelude humoresque” which is rather fun and contains frequent nods to Chopin. The following “intermezzo” is no less amusing (as is indicated by the tempo direction) and is suitably cheerfully played. The middle part is rather whimsical before things speed up and become jollier to complete the piece. The final piece of the set is an “Étude héroïque” which is suitably heroic and sounds similar in style to Saint-Saëns's marvellous sets of piano études.

Again, another neglected composer is showcased in the best possible way in track 19 - Theodor Szanto’s horribly complex Troisième Étude Orientale (subtitled ‘en Quartes’) is recorded here, probably for the first time. It’s another splendidly evocative little piece, full of mumbling figurations – perhaps inspired by Chopin’s Étude in 3rds but reconceived in 4ths, mixed with some orientalism similar to Debussy or Godowsky (as found in the Java suite). It’s a slightly off kilter dance with plenty of complex passagework for the pianist, all of which is dispatched with considerable style. I’d really like to hear more of his work as it is very interesting in style.

Moszkowski has fared a little better in recordings of late with his orchestral works being recorded on Toccata and some of his solo piano pieces on Hyperion / Helios, both his concertos (also on Hyperion) and various other discs on other labels. Personally, I find his music endlessly fascinating and I am glad he’s been included on this disc as he had an innate gift for melodious writing and clearly a remarkable piano technique. This short passionate piece is played with suitable passion and is wonderfully phrased throughout and the slightly mad ending is great.

Lastly, we have Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s 3rd Paganini étude “La Campanella”. Personally, I prefer the original however here, Mr. Gugnin makes a first-rate case for the transcription and the mind (and fingers) boggle at the super spiky but surprisingly delicate playing, full of joie di vivre and plenty of virtuosity to contend with - I may have to revise my opinion of this piece…

The recording quality is exemplary as is usual for Hyperion, the cover notes are interesting and replete with plenty of detail about these neglected gems and the playing time is very generous. To sum up, this is a marvellous CD, there is a wide variety of music included and all is played with consummate skill. I recommend all piano music fans to go out and buy a copy as there is some magnificent playing here as well as some very neglected works which deserve to be better known. I also look forward to further recordings by Andrey Gugnin who is clearly someone well worth listening to. I also hope this disc sells well and encourages pianists to hunt around in the archives for more obscure and really rather splendid repertoire such as this.

Jonathan Welsh
Previous review: Rob Challinor

Josef Hofmann: Charakterskizzen, Op.40
Felix Blumenfeld: Étude pour la main gauche seule, Op.36
Emil von Sauer: Études de concert - No.19 in B minor "Vision"
Euginio Pirani: Scherzo-Étude, Op.67
Abram Chasins: Prelude No.13 in G flat major, Op.12 No.1
Ignacy Friedman: Drei Klavierstücke, Op.33
Ossip Gabrilowitsch: Étude for the left hand, Op.12 No.2
Joseph Holbrooke: Rhapsodie-Études, Op.42
Constantin von Sternberg: Étude de concert No. 5 in F Major, Op.115
Theodor Leschetitzky: Trois Morceaux, Op.48
Theodor Szanto: Troisième Étude Orientale (En Quartes)
Moritz Moszkowski: Melodia Appassionato, Op.81 No.6
Liszt/Busoni: Grande Étude de Paganini in G sharp minor "La Campanella", S141 no.3

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