Notes and Editorial Reviews
Any discussion about the most difficult works in the piano repertoire is bound to include Leopold Godowsky's 53 Studies on Chopin's Etudes. To be sure, the pure, unadulterated Chopin Etudes lie within reach of most virtuosos. But one cursory glance at a page from a Godowsky/Chopin concoction might easily intimidate even the most accomplished pianist of the human species. Godowsky operates under the basic premise that whatever elaborate passagework Chopin assigned to the right hand can and should be played by the left. On top of that, he smothers the right hand with lily-gilding countermelodies and serpentine filigree.
Even the 22 studies arranged for the left hand alone get harmonic
and textural facelifts, emerging as more than just single-handed reductions. In the E-flat minor Etude, for instance, Chopin's murmuring accompaniment underneath the lyrical melody is replaced by quicksilver runs that quietly dart up and down the keyboard like a firefly who refuses to be caught. In lieu of octaves for Op. 25 No. 10's left-handed recasting, Godowsky pads the chromatic melody with enough chords to keep the pianist off the street for months. No less than seven studies explore the famous "Black Key" Etude (Op. 10 No. 5), in addition to the famous "Badinage", where the "Black Key" is combined with the "Butterfly" (Op. 25 No. 9) to make a decadent, delectable sandwich. Godowsky transforms the Op. 24 No. 4 Etude into an ingenuous send-up of Chopin's F-sharp minor Polonaise Op. 44, while treating the Op. 25 No. 1 "Aeolian Harp" Etude in the manner of a piano four-hands piece.
Any pianist who has confronted these pieces will tell you that the music is more difficult to play than it sounds. Once you get the notes under your fingers, you have to balance the polyphony and clarify the elaborate textures through voicing, hand balance, and genuine pedaling know-how. Marc-André Hamelin's astounding keyboard proficiency and unruffled interpretive cool make the Chopin/Godowsky studies sound utterly easy, even logical to play. Much as I admire Carlo Grante's extremely accomplished Chopin/Godowsky cycle on Altarus, the nod must go to Hamelin. The Canadian pianist achieves prodigious lightness and clarity at all times, without compromising his beautifully modulated sonority. Leaping passages never stray from their treacherous mark, and even the thickest, loudest chords bear no splinters. Perhaps Hamelin's most impressive work lies in the supple control and playful flexibility he brings to the studies for left hand alone, as well as the aforementioned "Black Key" group. In fact, Hamelin's artistry has ripened since recording a handful of these works back in 1988 for the CBC label.
For all Hamelin's indisputable authority and genuine affinity for this repertoire, however, he is not one to toy with the demon lurking underneath Godowsky's elaborately wrought surfaces. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But you get a different idea of Godowsky's aesthetic from David Saperton's recordings of 11 Chopin/Godowsky Etudes, recorded in the early 1950s and reissued on VAI. Saperton, who was Godowsky's son-in-law, plays with the music, pointing up its harmonic richness through exquisitely timed fluctuations of tempo, with accents that propel the melodies over the barlines. A forthcoming recording of Study No. 45 (based on the Nouvelle Etude in A-flat major) featuring composer/pianist Robert Helps delineates Godowsky's carefully marked inner voices with a sense of linear purpose quite different from Hamelin's impressionistic aura. In addition, the young Italian pianist Francesco Libetta's live performances of the entire cycle often dare more than Hamelin's, and prove that Godowsky's metronome markings are plausible rather than optimistic. None of this, however, takes anything away from Hamelin's extraordinary version, which will be hard to surpass both artistically and sonically. It does nothing to diminish his achievement to say that he has perfectly realized his own interpretive viewpoint, while the music itself continues to suggest other possibilities as well. Hopefully, Hamelin's example will encourage other pianists to brave this particular Everest, finding their own unique, equally rewarding routes to the summit.
In addition to informative notes by Godowsky biographer Jeremy Nichols, Hamelin offers his own lucid and insightful commentaries on each study, along with a touching dedication to the memory of his father. A triumph.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less
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