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ClassicsOnline Home » GODOWSKY, L.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Scherbakov) - Piano Sonata in E Minor
By Martin Anderson
Marco Polo brought out a CD of Leopold Godowsky's Piano Sonata - a wonderful, sprawling, heart-warming, epic late-Romantic canvas, 50 minutes in length - by Konstantin Scherbakov, a phenomenal pianist... Scherbakov's playing is big-toned, generous, powerfully assured."
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 and 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 the latters 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 Godowskys playing and suggested that he should adopt him, on condition that he changed his name, a proposal 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 composers presence at the Paris chamber-music society, La Trompette. In 1927, six years after the death of Saint-Saëns, Godowsky transcribed for piano his mentors 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, later marrying and taking 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 master-class 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.
Godowskys Sonata in E minor was published in 1911 and dedicated to his wife, Frieda Saxe, whom he had married in New York in 1901. It starts with a movement of impressive dimensions, alternating moments of passionate intensity with the finely lyrical, always in a characteristically pianistic idiom and ending with a hushed postscript. This is followed by a slow movement, marked Andante cantabile and breathing an air of romanticism both in its singing melody and in its textures. The mood changes with the lively scherzo, capped by the Allegretto grazioso e dolce fourth movement, with its reminiscences of the waltz. The sonata ends with a final Retrospect, by turns sombre and gently melancholy, leading to a masterly fugue, a solemn march and a wistful interlude, before the march resumes, with its hints of the Dies irae and the tender serenity of the reminiscent final section.
Menuet No.1 in E major dates from 1891 and is dedicated to Oscar J.Saxe. Mildly contrapuntal in texture, it was included as a supplement to the local periodical The Keynote in September 1891 and was published in Cincinnati, then a musical centre of largely European origin, the following month.
Twilight Thoughts, described as a Suite des Morceaux pour Piano, was printed privately in Paris in 1889. The third of the six pieces, Au jardin des fleurs (In the Garden of Flowers), an apt title, was dedicated to Madame Léon Meunier and grows in intensity, as it proceeds, although the dominant mood is one of tender tranquillity. It is here followed by the second of the pieces, the illustrative Une nuit de printemps (A Night in Spring), dedicated to a Madame Theron C.Crawford. This was later revised and published in St Louis as Frühlingsnacht, Nocturne, in 1915. Godowskys Sérénade is the fifth of the six pieces, dedicated to Madame la Comtesse Ferdinand de Lesseps, a clearer indication of the nature of Godowskys position as a young pianist and composer in Paris in the 1880s. It was, indeed, pieces of this kind that Godowsky played through to his mentor Saint-Saëns, eliciting the comments Cest charmant or Epatant, mon cher, encouraging, as Godowsky found, if not particularly perceptive.
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