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Twenty Five
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
12 Études, Op 25 (1832-1836)*
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Études after Chopin's Études, Op 25 (1894-1914)
* No.7 unrecorded as Godowsky made no arrangement of this étude
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Morgengruss, D.795 No 8 (1823 arr. Godowsky, 1926)
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Man lebt nur einmal, Op 167 (1855 arr. Carl Tausig, c.1868)
David Stanhope (piano)
rec. May 2020, Stanhope Studio, Robertson, Australia
Individual timings not given

Love them or loathe them, Godowsky's paraphrases on Chopin's 27 Études are a towering testament to the advances in piano technique that the 19th century and composers from Chopin, Liszt and beyond had wrought and there is no denying that Godowsky approached them with utter respect for the originals. Stanhope has recorded both sets of Chopin Études alongside the Godowsky versions. The Op 10 set appeared on a DVD recorded in 2012 on a Steinway in Sydney's City Recital Hall (review). Due to pandemic restrictions the follow up, not recorded until 2020 and containing the Études Op 25 and their Godowsky counterparts, was recorded on Stanhope's own Bechstein in his New South Wales studio - the disc cover wryly says Recording engineer, camera boy and producer David Stanhope.

This is all something of an achievement; tackling both sets of the Chopin Études as well as Leopold Godowsky's reworkings of them and to do it so well is a remarkable undertaking. The idea of bringing the two versions together has been considered before; in 1929 Danish pianist Victor Schiřler recorded Op 25 No 9 alongside Godowsky's reworking (available on Danacord DACOCD491-2) and more recently Boris Berezovsky recorded a selection in this manner after having played them in recital several times (TELDEC 2564664684). The advantages here are that we have the entire Op 25 set to compare with their counterparts, the chance to witness extreme pianism unfolding before our eyes as well as Stanhope's spoken introductions to all the études.

The format is straightforward; each Chopin étude is played followed by each Godowsky variant or variants – the menu only finds each étude group i.e. Op 25 No 1 and its counterparts rather than each individual étude. There are also Stanhope's spoken introductions to each piece; these are always pertinent and informative revealing details about their composition or history and demonstrating, at the piano, facets of Chopin's originals, Godowsky's approach and how he went about solving the problems that arose in reworking them as well as observing the additional technical challenges that Godowsky introduced. I do appreciate Stanhope's personable and often dryly humorous delivery. The view of the keyboard is that of an observer standing a few feet to the right or left of the pianist - it switches occasionally though not often enough to distract. The remainder of the screen is blacked out which is a wee bit odd at first but the music soon entrances and all else is forgotten. As for the actual performances they are all one could hope for; Stanhope seemingly has no fears when it comes to any of this music, despite his occasional self-effacing comments to the contrary. The tempi are generally fast but Stanhope still manages to play with poetry and suppleness. As pieces of music some work better than others of course; for Op 25 No 2 Godowsky created 4 versions and the second, a lilting waltz with Godowsky's own countermelody, is a beautiful example whereas the third version in octaves isn't a piece you would necessarily return to often (Liszt apparently pre-empted Godowsky in this instance but it was not written down – he only played it in octaves to one-up the pianist Alexander Dreyschock who famously, and frequently, played the left hand of the revolutionary étude in octaves). The left hand version of Op 25 No 2, one of the most difficult of the left hand studies according to Stanhope, is much the same. Godowsky probably never intended many of these études as concert pieces, staggering as they are to hear in recital. Several of these make great recital works of course and it would be nice to hear the Op 25 No 2 waltz alongside the Op 25 No 4 polonaise and Op 25 No 5 mazurka in recital; so different to Chopin's writing but such idiomatic pieces created out of Chopin's muse. The étude that sparked Godowsky's creativity in the first place is here; Op 25 No 6 which was born out of curiosity on Godowsky's part – the left hand should be able to play what the right hand can shouldn't it? Well if it can how does that become music rather than just a study? This is the étude I was eager to hear when I first heard of these pieces and managed to find a copy of the score. I couldn't even get my poor fingers round the original so how does anyone play it with the other hand? Well they do and Stanhope does very effectively and it is wonderful to see it unfolding before your eyes.

Pointing out that Godowsky didn't compose a version of Op 25 No 7 Stanhope remarks so I'm not going to play that one – it's too sad anyway. A shame as I would have liked to hear him play it if only for completeness. The remaining études are just as successful and to top it all we are treated to Godowsky's beautiful transcription of Schubert's Morgengruss and Carl Tausig's delicious arrangement of Johann Strauss's little known Man lebt nur Einmal.

Sound-wise this release is perfectly acceptable though perhaps a wee bit boxy. The years between this recording and that of the Op 10 Études seem to have done little to dull Stanhope's technical ability – perhaps there isn't quite the utter flexibility that the Op 10 set has but this is not to detract from what are astonishing performances. Even a cursory listen to the etude that started Godowsky off on his epic traversal, Op 25 No 6, or the brilliant version of Op 25 No 11 shows that Stanhope has maintained an admirable agility alongside the musical mind to add colour and character to his playing. Even if you already have Marc-André Hamelin's impeccable complete set (Hyperion Records CDA67411-2) or the first volume of Konstantin Scherbakov's traversal (Marco Polo 8.225372, volume 2 soon please!) I can heartily recommend this valuable, breathtaking and entertaining collection.

Rob Challinor

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