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Hamelin: Godowsky – Sonata, Passacaglia (APE)

Hamelin: Godowsky - Sonata, Passacaglia (APE)
Hamelin: Godowsky – Sonata, Passacaglia (APE)

Performer: Marc-Andre Hamelin
Composer: Leopold Godowsky
Audio CD
Number of Discs: 1
Format: APE (image+cue)
Label: Hyperion
Size: 168 MB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: no

# Piano Sonata in E minor (AKA Grand Sonata)
Composed by Leopold Godowsky
with Marc-Andre Hamelin

# Passacaglia for piano
Composed by Leopold Godowsky
with Marc-Andre Hamelin

01. Piano Sonata in E minor – Allegro no troppo, ma appassionato
02. Piano Sonata in E minor – Andante cantabile
03. Piano Sonata in E minor – Allegro vivace e scherzando
04. Piano Sonata in E minor – Allegretto grazioso e dolce
05. Piano Sonata in E minor – Retrospect: Lento, mesto – Fuga: Molto espressivo
06. Passacaglia (44 variations on Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony)

Big ideas, big music, big performances

I had to live with this CD for several months before I felt sufficiently acquainted with this previously unfamiliar music to write this review. My pleasure in this music grew with each hearing.
The disc contains Godowsky’s two largest pieces for piano. He is primarily remembered as a piano virtuoso and for his miniatures, particularly the transformations of Chopin’s études (53 of them, based on the 26 Chopin pieces, 22 of them for left hand alone) already brilliantly recorded by Hamelin.
The Sonata was composed in the decade that also brought us the Dukas ‘Grande Sonate’ and the Berg Op. 1 Sonata, a period that some feel was the last flowering of the Romantic piano sonata. It is huge–five movements lasting almost 50 minutes. Two very large movements, the first and fifth, surround three gentler, dreamy, graceful movements, each containing luscious Schubertian melodies. The two end movements, though, are filled with serious, lush, even hyper-romantic stuff. The first movement, in fairly strict but extended sonata form, has six distinct themes that are combined, altered, recollected (as some of them are again in the final movement), all clothed in highly chromatic harmonies. Somehow Godowsky is able to use fistfuls of notes but still keep the contrapuntal lines going perceptibly. And certainly Hamelin’s ability to take dense music of this sort and make intelligible MUSIC out of it is indispensable here. The last movement, all in slow tempo, starts with a short introduction followed by a delicious Larghetto–Godowsky also arranged it for violin and piano, and later for cello and piano–not a man to let a good idea go to waste), which is then followed by a huge fugue on the notes B-A-C-H, in turn followed by a touching funeral march. The piece ends quietly with the Dies irae slowly intoned in the bass followed by a short repetition of the funeral march.
The Passacaglia is based on a theme from Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony–not the familiar tune that every school child knows, but the tune in b minor that opens the first movement. Among pianists the piece is known as almost impossibly hard; in fact, Horowitz, after studying the piece for some time reportedly said ‘It’s hopeless. You need six hands to play it!’ Abram Chasins, who heard Godowsky play the piece at a private gathering, wrote:
“This was sheer enchantment, both the work itself and Godowsky’s pianism. It had the cool, colorful clarity of a stained-glass window. Although I was greatly moved and impressed by what I heard, Godowsky’s effortless mastery made me unaware of the vastness of his pianistic feat that night.” (quoted in Robert Rimm’s “The Composer-Pianists”)
And indeed, it is the case that the piece’s horrendous difficulties are in the service of Godowsky’s musical ideas, not simply there for show.
Needless to say, Marc-André Hamelin’s performances of these two pieces are ne plus ultra. One hopes, on the one hand, that these recordings might encourage others to take up these pieces, but fears, on the other, that his spectacular musicianship will intimidate other pianists. We should be glad we have these recordings.
One personal note: I shall be hearing Hamelin in recital later this season. The program has not been announced. I am hoping that he includes one of these pieces on his program. But if he doesn’t, at least I have this disc.

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