GODOWSKY:  The Complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes
Marc-AndrČ Hamelin, pianist

HYPERION  CDA 67411/2 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  77:56 & 75:06
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Piano aficionados rejoice!  Here is a set collectors have been waiting for—a superb recording by Hamelin of the complete set of  Leopold Godowsky's incredibly difficult studies based on Chopin's Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25. Well, all that were written: Godowsky, for whatever reason,  never wrote a study on Op. 25 No. 7. All  53 he did compose fit comfortably on two well-filled CDs.  Of major  importance is  detailed documentation that makes it very clear for  listeners to understand exactly  what they are listening to.

Harold Schonberg of the New York Times described this music as "probably the most impossibly difficult things ever written for the piano.  These are fantastic exercises that push piano technique to heights undreamed of even by Liszt."  No question about it; the G# minor Etude of Op. 25 is hard enough to play as originally written, but to play  all those double thirds with the left hand!  Very difficult, indeed!

Leopold Godowsky  (1870 - 1938) was born in Sozly near Vilnius (Wilno, now in Lithuania). Considering his achievements both on the concert stage and in writing for the piano, it is remarkable that he achieved all this with minimal formal training.  After rudimentary instruction as a child,  when 13 he studied for three months in Berlin -- and that was it; the rest was self-taught.  He always was experimenting with new techniques.  Godowsky had enormous  interest in the technical side of playing the piano,  focusing on different fingering and development of  left hand performance.  Little music had been written that was a true challenge  for the left hand.  Some composers wrote left-hand concertos for Paul Wittgenstein, including Prokofiev, Britten, Korngold and Ravel (Wittgenstein didn't play most of them and struggled with those he did).  Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand (spectacularly recorded by Simon Barere) and Georges Cziffra's transcription of Flight of the Bumble Bee are two of the most demanding works for the left hand.....aside, of course, from Godowsky's  legendary studies. 

Leopold Godowsky's preface states his studies "....have manifold purposes. Their aim is to develop the mechanical, technical and musical possibilities of pianoforte playing, to expand the peculiarly adapted nature of the instrument to polyphonic, polyrhythmic and polydynamic work, and to widen the range of its possibilities in tone colouring....the studies are to be considered in an equal degree suitable for concert performance and private study." 

The numbering of Godowsky's studies  can be confusing, but all is clarified in Hamelin's detailed  written comments on each etude.  The Etude Op. 10 No. 1 is heard in two versions, the second for left hand only, as is the Op. 10 No. 2.  The famous Etude Op. 10 No. 5 is heard in seven versions, two for left hand alone, one in which this famous "black-key etude" is played on white keys. And so it continues throughout the entire Chopin set with the exception of Op. 25 No. 7.  In addition to the Opp. 10 and 12 Etudes, Godowsky also transcribed the three Nouvelle Etudes, and tops it all off with two studies  each  of which  combines  two of Chopin's.

Hamelin is  the consummate musician, tossing off the most difficult passages with the greatest of ease, brilliance and style, always  managing to clarify the ever-present counterpoint of the writing. This is a fascinating set with the magnificent sound of the Steinway Piano beautifully recorded by Tony Faulkner.  Essential for those who love Chopin and the art of playing the piano.  Highly recommended!

R.E.B.(Oct. 2000)