Godowsky piano music

0 of 5 stars

Piano Sonata in E minor
Passacaglia (44 variations, cadenza and fugue on the opening of Schubert’s ’Unfinished’ Symphony)

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: March 2002

Godowsky might be compared to a remote mountain peak in Central Asia – in Kirghizstan, say, or some other part of the former Soviet Union. It is a range of fabled difficulty, remote and inaccessible; while endless new ways are found of scaling Everest, it remains barely visited. Moreover, this CD is the “other” Godowsky, the Godowsky not of the technically murderous intensification of Chopin’s Etudes, but two serious attempts at original composition. Marc-André Hamelin writes feelingly in his booklet note of the need for originality in programming – this release is like a first trip to a country only read about.

There is a recent, honourable tradition in the rediscovery of late-Romantic repertoire. Artists like Seta Tanyel and Stephen Hough have restored Scharwenka and Moszkowski. In an over-marketed age, obscurity is the new original. This, then, is the first time that these large-scale works have appeared together on disc, and it is surely the best version of either.

In itself, this is an unqualified success. Hamelin plays with wonderful virtuosity, making light of what must be formidable demands on the interpreter. Hamelin’s musicality brings out the Brahmsian lyricism with which the sonata opens and his intellect deals with the architectural complexity of the finale, an unlikely combination of slow introduction, fugue and funeral march. The slow movement is played with lyric stillness; the fourth movement waltz with grace. The Passacaglia is impeccably organised and heroically delivered, marching on with a conviction and inevitability that belie its virtual disappearance from the repertoire.

I am not though convinced that Hamelin’s polemic in favour of the quality of the works, and of the sonata in particular, comes over as anything other than special pleading. What the performer has the leisure to explore in practice and repetition the audience misses on a single hearing. Even on repeated listening, I feel that the sonata is indigestible, even flabby, and not a neglected masterpiece. The immediately charming scherzo (third movement) is an exception to this.

It is wonderfully clever that the Passacaglia is so allusive, and contains long quotes from the Schubert’s Erlkönig; at the end, Schubert’s theme is restored above the passacaglia bass. However, it suggests itself as meretricious, more than that it might be a summation of a previous composer’s work or assimilation of tradition.

Hyperion’s recording quality is exemplary – warm and natural – giving the music its best chance to make its case. From a musicological, historical and archival point of view, this is an important release that will long be a point of reference for this branch of the repertoire.

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