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8.223312 - GODOWSKY, L.: Walzermasken (Prunyi)
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Leopold Godowsky (1870- 1938) Walzermasken

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)

Walzermasken

 

"The superman of piano playing", "a pianist for pianists", "the greatest technician of all time", "the ultimate phenomenon" - those are some of the epithets applied to Leopold Godowsky. Regrettably his concern with perfection and his innate shyness inhibited his public performances and his recordings, and the transcendental magnificence of his playing was revealed fully only to those who were fortunate enough to hear him in the privacy of his own studio. Godowsky was a giant of the Golden Age, in company with Rachmaninov, Lhevinne, Rosenthal, Friedman and Moiseiwitsch. No less a figure than the great Hofmann proclaimed it a tragedy that the public never heard Godowsky play as only he could. He was indeed one of the most remarkable pianists who ever lived.

 

Amazingly, Godowsky was in large part self-taught. Born in Soshly, near Vilnius in present-day Lithuania on 13th February 1870, he began to study the violin at the age of three, but before long his true aptitude for the piano became apparent. There is a story that at the age of four, without any piano lessons, he played correctly a selection from Martha which he had heard only once - played by the regimental band a full year before! His musical training in Vilnius was scant and sporadic. Even so, by the age of seven he was composing his own pieces, and remarkably he used many of his early musical ideas again in his mature compositions. When nine years old he made his public début, and that recital led eventually to a tour through Poland and Germany. In Königsberg, Godowsky attracted the attention of a wealthy banker named Feinburg, through whose generosity he entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik at the age of thirteen for two years' study. Among his teachers were the composer Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897), who was Clara Schumann's half-brother, and the pianist-composer Ernst Rudorff (1840-1916), who was a friend of Brahms.

 

Leaving Berlin, he made his American début in Boston on 7th December 1884 and embarked in 1886 on a tour of Canada with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin. The following three years were spent mostly in Paris, where Godowsky became known as a protégé of Saint-Saëns and played in society salons, and in London, where he played a command performance for the royal family. The next decade found him back in America, associated with important music schools in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. He took American citizenship and married Frieda Saxe in 1891. (Their son, incidentally, was the co-inventor of the Kodachrome colour process.)

 

A momentous occasion in Godowsky's life was the recital in Berlin on 6th December 1900, when he became overnight one of the world's greatest pianists. Already known by reputation to the German capital's pianistic circles, Godowsky was nevertheless a new name to the public and the critics. He faced the concert with trepidation, fearing popular success and critical defeat or vice versa, not to mention an antisemitic press and professional jealousies. After playing the Brahms B flat concerto to his "absolute satisfaction," he proceeded to conquer the audience, in which all of Berlin's musical luminaries were in attendance, with seven of his own Chopin paraphrases and his arrangement of Weber's Invitation to the Dance. The pianists de Pachmann, Weiss, Hambourg and Foerster, according to Godowsky's account, "went mad" along with the rest of the audience, and Godowsky lost count of the curtain calls after the paraphrases. The success was greater than any he had ever witnessed; not even Paderewski had generated such enthusiasm. The rest of the concert consisted of a similarly inspired performance of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor concerto and two encores. The critics were unanimous in their praise. "Nobody ever got such notices," Godowsky recalled, adding that no musician present could ever remember a more sensational success.

 

Suddenly Berlin had two keyboard giants - Godowsky and Busoni - and they busied themselves each one trying to outdo the other. Godowsky remained in Berlin, teaching there, until 1909, when he accepted a professorship in advanced studies at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Vienna. At the outbreak of World War I he setlied permanently in America. During a recording session of Chopin's Nocturnes in London in 1930, Godowsky suffered a stroke that cost him the use of his right arm and abruptly ended his concert career. He continued to compose until his death in New York on 21st November 1938.

 

Everything that Godowsky achieved as a technician and an interpretative artist was embodied in his own compositions and transcriptions. He made a firm distinction between virtuosity (the mechanics of piano playing that "any fool can learn") and technique (which he defined as everything that makes for artistry - fingering, phrasing, pedalling, dynamics, agogics, time and rhythm). He described his style of composition as a personal one with involved inner voices, complex counterpoint and polyrhythms and novel sonorities. As much as he was fascinated by technical matters, he placed greater importance on emotion ("the prime requisite of art"), which nevertheless needs the guidance of knowledge and intelligence. He claimed never to have written a note that he did not feel and described his music as self-revelation through sound.

 

It used to be said that Godowsky composed for a future generation of pianists, since his works - both the original ones and the transcriptions - were of such difficulty that only he could play them. Even today the Fitty - Three Studies on Chopin's Etudes must be regarded as among the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano. They are fantastic elaborations that far exceed the demands that even Liszt had made of his players. Several, including the "Revolutionary" étude, are recast tor the left hand alone. One, retitled "Badinage", combines simultaneously the "Black Key" étude in the left hand and the "Butterfly" étude in the right! Anticipating cries of heresy in his treatment of Chopin, Godowsky defended in a foreword to the published edition his intention to expand the piano's polyphonic, polyrhythmic, polydynamic and coloristic possibilities. Certainly he achieved a transcendental quality that exalts the instrument in a manner unsurpassed since Liszt.

 

The other transcriptions include the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss's Waltzes (which are of legendary difficulty but modest compared to the Chopin studies), paraphrases on Weber's Invitation to the Dance and Perpetuum mobile, arrangements of three each of Bach's solo suites for violin and cello, a set of a dozen Schubert songs, and Renaissance - two sets of twenty-four dance pieces by Rameau, Corelli, Lully and Dandrieu.

 

Among Godowsky's original compositions are an exhaustively contrapuntal, five-movement Sonata in E Minor, several concert études and anumber of smaller pieces. Best known of the original works is Triakontameron, a suite of thirty tone pictures whence comes the graceful, nostalgic "Alt Wien". A concert tour of Asia provided the inspiration for the Java Suite, twelve sketches that echo the exotic Indonesian gamelan music. The Suite for the Left Hand Alone, Six Waltz Poems and Prelude and Fugue bring to mind another of Godowsky's epithets: "the Apostle of the Left Hand". His few works for two pianos afford ample opportunity for contrapuntal and sonorous exploitation, and the set of Forty-Six Miniatures for four hands is a remarkable pedagogical cycle for student and teacher. Besides piano music Godowsky composed songs and the Twelve Impressions for violin and piano - arrangements of selected Walzermasken and two movements of the sonata, made for his friends Fritz and Harriet Kreisler in 1916 as a token of a vanishing world.

 

Walzermasken was composed in 1911 and comprises twenty-four fantasies in tripie time, intended to be heard as a cycle. Played without interruptions, it lasts about an hour. Although Godowsky did not oppose the idea of playing a selection of movements as the occasion warranted, he urged the pianist to take variety into consideration when making his choices. He also stressed the importance of careful and mature pedalling and suggested that attention to the tonic note, harmony and innervoices serve as a general guide to the performer . For a composer of lesser talent, such a cycle could easily degenerate into tedium. The variety of the Walzermasken is eloquent testimony to Godowsky's imaginative powers.

 

Whether by chance or design, the Walzermasken seem to fall into several sub-groups within the large cycle. An air of delicious nostalgia pervades the first three pieces: the bold "Karneval" (1) that begins the cycle, the harmonically delicate "Pastell" (2) and the rhythmically complex "Skizze" (3). The next two pieces are independent: a brief, playful "Momento capriccioso" (4) and a calm "Berceuse" (5). The spirit of Chopin hovers over the next three pieces, which seem to form a triptych: the showy "Kontraste" (6), the moderately paced "Profil" (7) and the sornewhat dramatic "Silhouette" (8). The feeling changes markedly in the next three pieces, which are decidedly Gallic and form a set of elegant, Ravel-like waltzes, comprising "Satire" (9), "Karikatur" (10) and "Tyll Ulenspegel" (11 ). "Legende" (12) re-establishes a romantic Central European flavour, and Chopin's influence dominates the next six numbers: a fantasy-filled "Humoreske" (13), the salonish "Französisch" (14), a melancholy, cascading "Elegie" (15), a surprisingly melodious "Perpetuurn mobile" (16), an attractive "Menuett" (17) and the whimsical "Schuhplattler" (18). The final six pieces exhibitgreaterdiversity. The heavy, lugubrious "Valse macabre" (19) breathes an air of tragedy. "Abendglocken" (20) is a tone picture bordering on impressionism; distinguished by a lovely melody, this second-largest piece of the cycle creates a peaceful atmosphere suggestive of evening bells. The same sort of delicacy infuses the introspective "Orientale" (21) with its veiled hints of the East. "Wienerisch" (22) evokes the Viennese waltz, but as Chopin might have done. A sombre contrast is found in "Eine Sage" (23), partially notated on three staves, with its restrained, narrative quality. It is only fitting that the vast cycle should end with a homage to the Waltz King himself, and "Portrait (Joh. S.)" (24) is the largest and most elaborate piece of all - one wherein Strauss's melodic gift and Godowsky's technical prowess meet.

 

Ilona Prunyi

 

Ilona Prunyi was born in Debrecen in 1941 and studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, distinguishing herself in the Liszt-Bart6k Competition while still a student. Her career as a concert performer was interrupted by aperiod of ill health, and for personal reasons she spent ten years as a teacher at the Academy before making her début in 1974. Since then she has appeared frequently in solo and chamber music recitals and as a soloist with the principal Hungarian orchestras.


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