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Keyboard Thursday album review: Seamless, sparkling Leopold Godowski from pianist Konstantin Scherbakov

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(Library of Congress archive photo)
(Library of Congress archive photo)

That we truly can’t predict what will remain of today’s great artists a couple of generations from now is one of the lessons we can learn from Leopold Godowski, born in Lithuania in 1870 and who died of cancer in New York City 68 years later.

Before suffering a stroke in 1930, Godowski circled the world giving concerts and, in fits of inspiration, would take jobs at music schools for a year or three before getting restless again and moving on.

He was 16 when he toured Canada for the first time in 1886 — eight years before Massey Hall was completed.

Like thousands of others, Godowski lost all of his money in the 1929 stock market crash and had plans to earn it back by giving recitals, but the stroke put an end to that. So he started composing at a furious pace.

It was expected from the big pianists of the day that they play their own compositions or improvisations in a recital programme, so Godowski knew what he was doing. He dedicated his pieces to prominent pianists and teachers, in an effort to keep his name out there.

marcoMost of the pieces in the 11th volume of Godowski’s piano music released by Naxos on its budget Marco Polo label were composed between 1929 and the suicide of the pianist’s son in 1932, which also killed his creative streak (to make his life even more miserable, Godowski’s wife died a year later). Most are also written for left hand only.

Siberian-born, Swiss-based pianist Konstantin Scherbakov, one of the great pianistic stars of the 1990s, has built a solid career in Europe. He is also a dedicated advocate of Godowski’s music.

This album is a flawless, elegant showcase for Scherbakov’s many talents as well as Godowski’s virtuosic demands and sweet, rich, late-romanticism.

The six works (or sets of pieces) on this album are a mishmash, ranging from a set of six concert showpieces to a splashy fantasy for left hand on themes from the Johann Strauss operetta The Gypsy Baron.

I find much of Godowski’s music to be little more than froth, the pianistic equivalent of empty calories. But there is a lot to respect here, from both composer and interpreter.

My favourite work from this album is a Suite for left hand, its eight movements following traditional baroque style (from Allemande to Gigue). You would never know from Scherbakov’s seamless interpretation that there are only five (extremely nimble) fingers at work here.

Also very satisfying are a Prelude and Fugue (with a jaunty subject built on a B-A-C-H theme), also for left hand.

Besides a regular obituary, The New York Times ran an editorial when Godowski died in November, 1938. The writer believed the naturalized American would be best remembered as a teacher and composer:

When he played his style was too perfect, too sensitive, perhaps too cool and unostentatious in its values, to win the approval of the crowd. He could play everything when he was at the zenith of his powers with a finish and apparent ease attainable by few, and with an understanding and abhorrence of exaggeration which did not favour him in the concert world.

It’s possible that now, as younger pianists are rediscovering the Victorian music cast aside by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, that Golden Age pianist-composers like Godowsky will get a new appreciation.

We’ll see.

You can find out more about the album here.

John Terauds 

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