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8.225267 - GODOWSKY, L.: Piano Music, Vol. 7 (Scherbakov) - Piano Transcriptions of Bach Cello Suites Nos. 2, 3 and 5
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Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)
Piano Music, Vol. 7 - Transcriptions of Bach Cello Suites


The great Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky was born at Soshly, a village near the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, in 1870, the son of a doctor. The first signs of his exceptional musical ability were clear by the age of three and he wrote his first compositions four years later, in 1879 making his first public appearance as a pianist. There followed a series of concerts in Germany and Poland and a very short period of study with Ernst Rudorff, a pupil of Clara Schumann and of Moscheles, at the Berlin Musikhochschule. Four months at the Hochschule proved enough and in the same year, 1884, Godowsky made his first appearance in the United States in Boston, under the auspices of the Clara Louise Kellogg Concert Company, then touring with that singer and with the singer Emma Thursby. 1885 brought appearances at the New York Casino, in weekly alternation with the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, and the following year he undertook a tour of Canada with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin, for whom Saint-Saëns had written his Morceau de concert. In the hope of studying with Liszt, Godowsky returned to Europe, but, learning of Liszt's death from a newspaper, he travelled, instead, to Paris, with the object of studying with Camille Saint-Saëns, distinguished equally as a pianist and a composer. Saint-Saëns was impressed by Godowsky's playing and suggested that he should adopt him, on condition that he changed his name, a suggestion that Godowsky rejected. For the better part of three years, however, their relationship continued, with Sundays spent together, Godowsky playing to Saint-Saëns, before the latter played to his disciple his own compositions. The contact was a valuable one and allowed Godowsky to meet leading figures in contemporary musical life, including Tchaikovsky, whose music he played in that composer's presence at the Paris chamber-music society, La Trompette. In 1927, six years after the death of Saint-Saëns, Godowsky transcribed for piano his mentor's La cygne (The Swan), from the Carnival of the Animals, and on his own deathbed in 1938 had a friend play this to him.

In 1890 Godowsky returned to America, where he joined the staff of the New York College of Music, married, and took out American citizenship. While continuing his career as a performer, he visited Philadelphia in 1894 and 1895, as the head of the piano department at the music school founded by Gilbert Raynold Combs, and from 1895 to 1900 led the piano department of the Chicago Conservatory. A successful concert in Berlin persuaded him to settle there in the latter year, teaching and using the city as his base for concert tours throughout Europe and the Near East. In 1909 he moved to Vienna to direct the piano masterclass at the Akademie der Tonkunst.

There were American tours between 1912 and 1914 and with the outbreak of war Godowsky settled again in the United States, giving concerts and clarifying his innovative theories of keyboard technique in a series of editions and publications. At the same time he continued to write music of his own for the piano. He gave his last concert in the United States in 1922, but continued to tour throughout the world, acknowledged as one of the leading virtuosi of his time. His career as a performer was curtailed by a stroke in 1930, depriving him of the ability to play for the last eight years of his life. He was now increasingly led to pin his hopes for a lasting place in the history of music on his compositions and transcriptions for the piano. Such recognition, however, has been slow to come.

Johann Sebastian Bach served from 1717 to 1723 as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. His time there marked the social summit of his career. Here he enjoyed the favour of an enlightened young prince and avoided the kind of problems that were to beset him in Leipzig, where, from 1723 until his death in 1750, he was an employee of the city council at the choir school of St Thomas. Bach wrote his six Suites for unaccompanied cello at Cöthen, about the year 1720. They have attracted less attention from transcribers and arrangers than the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, particularly the famous Chaconne in D minor. These works for solo cello and for solo violin inevitably leave a great deal implied rather than openly stated. Both instruments are essentially melodic; chords of two or, on occasion even three notes, can be played simultaneously on adjacent strings, while four-note chords have to be split. Performance on a keyboard instrument allows the possibility of chords up to ten notes struck simultaneously. The violin and cello suggest contrasting polyphonic voices by changes of register. The piano is able to give full statement to what the other two instruments can only imply.

Godowky's transcriptions of Bach's works for solo violin and solo cello were published in 1924, described as ‘very freely transcribed and adapted for the pianoforte'. The fifth of the cello suites, the Suite in C minor, which Bach himself later arrange for lute, was originally written for the cello in scordatura, a practice sometimes found in string music of the period, with the top A string of the instrument tuned down to G. The transcription is dedicated to the cellist Casals. It opens, as all Bach's cello suites do, with a Prelude. The opening section, much expanded by Godowsky in its harmonies and use of contrasting registers, is followed by a fugue which, in transcription, is given a much fuller treatment than was possible in the original version. The Allemande that follows is also greatly expanded in range, with contrapuntal additions that remove it still further from the original dance of the title. This is duly followed by its companion Courante, treated more lightly in transcription. The Sarabande, that in the original avoids the chordal pattern of its predecessors, is given an added melodic line, with the original in the bass, and with the implied harmonies further expanded. The first Gavotte is treated delicately, framing the now rapid second Gavotte, with its compound rhythm. The final Gigue, in dotted compound rhythm, is again given additional melodic interest.

Suite No. 2 in D minor , the transcription dedicated to the Belgian cellist Jean Gérardy, opens ominously with a repeated key note in the bass, providing a pedalpoint in the transcription for the first few bars. Godowsky makes much of the great climax of the Prelude and its final bars. The Allemande is offered, expanded, tending to obscure, in its rapidity, the original form, offset by the virtuoso treatment of the Courante, with the original cello line in the upper part. The Sarabande restores a measure of tranquillity, the original melody again largely in the upper part. The first Minuet is treated with some delicacy, framing a D major second Minuet, provided now with a little added melody, that seems to belong in another century. The suite ends with a lively Gigue, similarly transformed.

The transcription of Suite No. 3 in C major is dedicated to the pianist Mario Paci, conductor of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, to which he had recruited the young Italian violinist Arrigo Foa as concertmaster in the early 1920s, together with other players from Europe. The Prelude opens boldly with a descending scale, the texture greatly expanded in transcription, with melodic implications realised in figuration that has a familiar Bachian air. The original Allemande has relatively elaborate figuration, which allows idiomatic embroidering. The Courante, with its octave treatment of the melody proposed, is followed by a tranquil Sarabande, a well-known movement in which the harmonies are already supplied in the original. This leads to the still more familiar pair of Bourrées, the second in C minor, elegantly arranged. The suite ends with an energetic Gigue, in an allusive arrangement.

Keith Anderson

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