Preludes in B flat minor, Op.31/2 & F, Op.40/3
Three Pieces, Op.57 No.3 in F minor & No.1 in D flat
Three pieces, Op.11 No.1 in D flat
Chopin & Chopin/Godowsky
A selection of Chopin Études and arrangements of same by Leopold Godowsky
Boris Berezovsky (piano)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 7 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
You have to be a brave pianist to attempt such a heavyweight programme as this and possibly insane to play the massively entertaining – if vacuous – Godowsky arrangements without the luxury of a recording studio and a doctor on call.
But Berezovsky has all the necessary fire, élan and technique to essay such a programme and this was for the most part a wonderful entertaining evening.
Liadov (1855-1914) is best known for a couple of orchestral works; the piano pieces in this concert were composed between 1886 and 1906 and are hardly neglected masterpieces. Each, inhabiting the soundworld of Schumann and Brahms, hinted at a melody that never really arrived – although better played than this I can’t imagine. Berezovsky’s rubato was beautifully and naturally controlled, his tone sang and every phrase was lovingly and stylishly delivered.
Rachmaninov’s second set of Preludes received brilliant performances. The first had superb tone, power, precision and a huge variety of tonal shading, while in the third the sound resembled assorted bells. In No.4 the dynamic control was exceptional and in No.5 the left-hand floated effortlessly, contrasting with the pin-like precision of the right. The sixth would have benefited from a greater sense of fantasy and No.10 was very slow in the outer sections, but so much of the phrasing had that uniquely Russian sense of rightness. More than in any other live performance I have heard, each piece had a clearly delineated emotional quality achieved through complete control of every aspect of the piano’s expressive potential.
Which brings us to the Godowsky fireworks. Between 1900 and 1914 Godowsky penned a total of 53 studies (including 22 for the left-hand) based on the Études and Nouvelle Études of Chopin. He wrote that “the Chopin Études … combine technical and mechanical problems … with the highest aesthetic qualities … (but) many hidden beauties will reveal themselves (in the Godowsky versions) even to the less observant student”. The studies perhaps say rather more about Godowsky and the culture of pirouetting prima donna piano virtuosos of the early 20th-century than they do about some of the greatest works in the repertoire. But if you have the technique – and Berezovsky does – then it must be tempting to play them.
Berezovsky chose to play the Chopin pieces first, which I think was a mistake – all I really wanted to hear him play was Chopin unadorned. In Op.10/1 the right hand was absolutely even but less use of the sustaining pedal would have helped to clarify the rhythm in the right. Op.10/3 received a well-nigh-perfect performance via superb dynamic variation and control, while No.4 was perfectly fingered if a little slow. The ‘Black Keys’ Étude – Op.10/5 – was ridiculously fast, but somehow, through rhythmic subtlety and the use of slight slowing, Berezovsky brought it off. Op 10/6 was contrastingly slow, hypnotic and impressionistic – a mesmerising performance. The three remaining Études were uneven; Op 10/10 was too evenly voiced and didn’t sing, the ‘Revolutionary’ was very powerful but the right-hand was too rigid and Op 25/5 was too slow in the outer sections, detracting from the gorgeously-phrased central section.
Of the Godowsky pieces little can be said. After the first five I simply got tired of listening to difficulty for difficulty’s sake. The double octaves imposed on Op.10/1 were totally superfluous, in Op.10/2 it sounded like every finger was constantly in use playing thirds to no great effect, and Op.10/4 was ridiculously complex but very amusing. For some reason Godowsky transformed Op.25/5 into a kitsch mazurka and set the ‘Revolutionary’ for left-hand only. There is nothing wrong in writing virtuoso music; even some of the sublime late Liszt pieces are phenomenally difficult, and written by a great pianist and composer, not by a pianist who was a lesser composer. Berezovsky played them all magnificently and looked weary at the end. For encores were Rachmaninov’s arrangement of Kreisler’s Liebeslied and some more Godowsky.