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8.223475 - GODOWSKY: Piano Music for Four Hands

Although Leopold Godowsky a legendary figure as one of the most remarkable wizards in the history of the piano, he has only re

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)

Piano Music for Four Hands


Although Leopold Godowsky a legendary figure as one of the most remarkable wizards in the history of the piano, he has only recently begun to emerge from an unjust obscurity as a composer. It is only now that many of his original compositions are beginning to be performed with any regularity on the concert platform and in the recording studio.


As a performer, Godowsky was held in awe by such contemporaries as Hofmann, Josef Lhévinne, de Pachmann, and Rachmaninov. His control of physical pianism was perhaps unrivaled, although he was seldom willing to thunder like a Rachmaninov or dream poetically like a Paderewski. Godowsky's incredible independence and evenness of fingers were the envy of his colleagues, for he had an uncanny ability to highlight the complex strands of counterpoint and inner voices which were a hallmark of his compositional style. For the mass public, however, Godowsky always lacked the sensual magnetism and human warmth of a Rubinstein, Anton or Arthur.


Godowsky was born in 1870 in Vilna, then the capital of Lithuania and now a part of Poland. Although a child prodigy, like Busoni he seems to have been largely self-taught, with his only formal academic training a brief and dismal three months spent at the Berlin Hochschule. A later extended period of contact with Saint-Saëns in Paris which started in 1886 was largely dismissed by Godowsky: "I must confess it was all encouragement and no criticism...I would play, and he would say" 'Bravo, bravo!'...but of lessons I had none." Godowsky had originally intended to study with Liszt, but the latter¡¦s death in 1886 prevented this.


Godowsky'sbig professional breakthrough came in 1900 when he gave his Berlin début. At the time Berlin was virtually crammed with the most illustrious pianists of the day, and Godowsky's audience included such giants as d'Albert and Rosenthai (two of Liszt's most famous students), Busoni and de Pachmann. With the Berlin Philharmonic his programme in two concerts included the first Piano Concertos of Brahms and of Tchaikovsky, seven of Godowsky's own recently composed and fiendishly difficult studies after the Chopin Etudes, and his own elaborate transcription of Weber's "Invitation to the Dance". Word spread rapidly, and he was soon heavily in demand throughout Europe.


For the next three decades Godowsky would enjoy an active concert career that took him repeatedly to the Far East, North and South America, Europe and Russia. Although he recorded extensively, his expressive powers seem to have been at their best in relaxed private surroundings before admiring colleagues and friends. Increasingly an over-concern for technical perfection seemed to inhibit Godowsky emotionally both on the stage and in the recording studio.


Godowsky's performance career was shattered when in 1930, during a gruelling series of recording sessions in London, he suffered a stroke which permanently impaired his right hand. The world financial crisis of 1929 had already caused problems for Godowsky, for like many others, he had lost an enormous amount of money in the collapse of the stock market. Now with his income from performing abruptly terminated, he spent the last eight years of his life struggling both to earn a living and to retain his professional identity by giving masterclasses and making educational editions. In 1935 his former student, Heinrich Neuhaus, the future teacher of both Richter and Gilels, tried to persuade Godowsky to teach for three months a year in Russia, but when Godowsky initially visited the former Soviet Union, he was so appalled at the political situation that he quickly left, and even cancelled a scheduled meeting with Stalin.


Godowsky's last years were dark, for they saw the suicide of one of his sons in 1932, and a year later the death of Frieda Godowsky, his devoted wife of forty-two years. Unable to return to Germany because of Hitler (Godowsky was Jewish), he occupied the final two years of his life largely with fruitless utopian plans for a "World Synod of Music and Musicians". He died embittered and lonely in New York City in 1938 from cancer. His will to compose had already perished at the time of his stroke.


Although Godowsky was prolific as a composer, like Chopin he confined himself largely to works for the piano. As Liszt had done for the level of virtuosity in his day, Godowsky in such compositions as his 53 Studies based on the Chopin Etudes and several of his Strauss waltz paraphrases carried the physical demands made on the player to a higher level than ever before, but Godowsky was also capable of writing extremely attractive, yet sophisticated works in small form.


The "Miniatures" were published in 1918, and bear witness to Godowsky's wonderful ability to charm, move, and amuse the listener, while solving the difficult problem of musically blending two performing parts of often contrasting difficulty. As in the other cycles of miniatures for four-hands such as Schumann's "Twelve Four-Handed Pieces for Big and Little Children", Op. 85, and Liszt's "Christmas Tree" Suite, Godowsky's writing proves that extremely original and expressive music can be contained in small structures. Godowsky's affection for the set is clear: "I have given a great deal of thought and loving care to them and thought he pieces are smaller and considerably less complicated than anything I have ever written, they represent the best there is in me. The experience and assimilated knowledge, the aims and aspirations, the hopes and ideals, the disappointments and yearnings of a sensitive nature and an artist's soul are all to be found..." Godowsky made solo versions of several from the set, and was particularly fond of playing the "Humoresque" in his concerts.


The set was immediately popular with both the general public and with Godowsky's colleagues. Gabrilowitsch, Hofmann and Huneker warmly expressed their enthusiasm, and even the usually dour Rachmaninov insisted on playing the gleeful little "Toccatina" over and over again. An especially charming incident is related by Bruno Walter, who visited Godowsky intending to ask him play some of his new Bach transcriptions. Instead Walter started to read through the "Miniatures" with Godowsky, then, upon leaving hours later, remembered that he had been so enchanted with the "Miniatures" that he had forgotten to ask his host to play the Bach pieces.


The Miniatures are arranged in eight groupings, and range from such warmly expressive, atmospheric pieces as the Meditation, Arabian Chant, and Nocturne, to the impish humour of the Toccatina, Humoresque, and The Exercise, the last of which must have owed something to Saint-Saëns' Pianists from the Carnival of the Animals. Dances from various countries are explored, with Chopin himself getting a gentle good-natured nod in the Mazurka.


These charming, witty, and expressive pieces are filled with some of Godowsky's most original writing, and undoubtedly express much of the composer's own loquacious personality that emerged when he was in congenial surroundings away from the concert stage. They are great fun for both listener and performer.


Alton Chung Ming Chan was born in Hong Kong and had much of his musical training in the United States. In 1984 he made his acclaimed début with the Central Opera Orchestra of Beijing in a concert broadcast and televised by Chinese National Television and Radio. He has won praise elsewhere for his technical command and poetic sensitivity and has given concerts in Asia, Europe and North America. Alton Chan is now a citizen of Canada.


Joseph Banowetz has performed on five continents. A graduate with a First Prize from the Vienna Hochschule, and a pupil of Carl Friedberg (a student of Clara Schumann), Banowetz has recorded with the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Budapest Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Central Opera Orchestra of Beijing. In 1987 his world-première recording of the Scherzi and Mazurkas of Balakirev received a Deutschen Schallplattenkritik citation in Germany as an outstanding recording for 1987. Banowetz and Chan first performed as a duo in 1984, and since then have appeared widely both in recital and with orchestra.

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