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Jed Distler, May 2007

Leopold Godowsky's 1925 Java Suite consists of 12 piano pieces inspired by the sights and sounds he absorbed during his Indonesian concert tour. For the most part, Godowsky consciously avoided the serpentine chromaticism of his controversial Chopin Etude transcriptions, favoring a more modal, impressionistic, and open-ended harmonic language. Furthermore, the rich, loquacious sonorities of the traditional Gamelan orchestra add a new and original dimension to Godowsky's polytextural keyboard deployment. Konstantin Scherbakov offers the cycle's second complete recording; the first featured Jakartan native Esther Budiardjo on a 2000 ProPiano release that may be hard to find.

Godowsky prefaces each piece with programmatic descriptions that actually prove useful in helping performers establish mood and character, and I sense that Scherbakov takes these to heart. In the opening selection, Gamelan, Scherbakov's dry, highly articulated playing contrasts to Budiardjo's languid shimmer. He takes No. 4 (Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit) considerably faster than Budiardjo, although he sacrifices tone and line for speed. But whereas Budiardjo is literal and square in No. 5 (Borobudur in Moonlight), Scherbakov's more flexible treatment wrings more allure and mystery from the murky opening measures and truly ignites the central climax. By favoring line over mass in No. 6 (The Bromo Volcano), Scherbakov's gaunt, sparely pedaled interpretation decisively cuts through the thick textures, while in No. 8 (The Gardens of Buitenzorg) he emphasizes inner voices that the smoother interpretations of Marc-Andri Hamelin and Stephen Hough play down.

In Godowsky's paraphrase on Wine, Women and Song, Scherbakov admittedly gives short shrift to some of the transcriber's tempo indications, yet his sharp-edged, muscular, and supremely delineated rendition is quite a piece of workmanship. A slightly metallic hue covers the loudest, busiest passages; otherwise the close, detailed sonics are fine.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Born in Poland in 1870, Leopold Godowsky was one of the most remarkable piano virtuosos of his time, his touring career beginning at the age of nine, his first composition completed at the age of seven. He was only fourteen when he took the not inconsiderable journey to the United States, touring extensively and gaining himself a reputation as a child prodigy. He eventually returned to Europe, and though there was no formal arrangement, became a pupil of Saint-Saens both as pianist and composer. The success he had enjoyed in the States was a temptation he could not resist and aged 20 returned there, married and became an American citizen. Adored for his outgoing musicianship he continued to tour, but also spent time teaching the new generation of American pianists. Europe was still in his blood that he returned there in his middle years, his life as a pianist ending with a stroke at the age of 60. I do love his big showpiece paraphrases, the Wine Women and Song a glittering score that requires that brand of virtuoso who can tinkle around the piano in elaborate ornamentation. It is a work ready made for Konstantin Scherbakov who is in stunning form. The extensive travelogue around Java dates from the 1920's, some of the exotic sounds Godowsky created having the intent of fascinating audiences who had little knowledge of music in the Far East. In four extensive sections subdivided into movements, each is a graphic picture of life and scenes of Java, but very much seen through Western eyes, and particularly with Debussy ever present. Again Scherbakov is outstanding in bringing clarity to the most complex passages, his dexterity a prerequisite throughout. Sound quality is very good, and aficionados of decorative romantic music should not hesitate.

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