Godowsky: Strauss transcriptions and other waltzes

Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67626)

25 July 2008 5 stars

Godowsky Strauss Transcriptions Godowsky's piano music is less of a rarity these days but still retains a mystique all its own. And the composer's works based on the ever-popular waltzes of Johann Strauss II are without doubt among the most challenging pieces in the repertoire. Representing the final flourish of a golden age of pre-war pianism, not only do they make the usual hair-raising technical demands, but these difficulties need to be negotiated with the sang froid and nonchalance characteristic of what Frederic Morton termed the era's 'nervous splendour'.

Marc-André Hamelin has been conquering one peak after another of the super-virtuoso's repertoire so the notes themselves hold no fear him. However, this is also playing of humour and charm; it is light of touch, rhythmically flexible and alert.

Making up the bulk of the disc is a trilogy of Symphonic Metamorphoses: one each on Künstlerleben, Die Fledermaus, and Wein, Weib und Gesang. As Jeremy Nicholas tells us in his passionate and detailed liner notes, the manuscript of a similar treatment of The Blue Danube was lost in Vienna at the start of the First World War. This is doubly regretful since comparing this work with the famous Schulz-Ever Arabesques based on the same waltz would no doubt have provided ample evidence of Godowsky's Metamorphoses being the product of a finer musical mind and a more questing intellect.

For pianophiles there is, obviously, no lack of fireworks but it is in often in the more experimental, thoughtful and veiled passages that the composer is at his best. As themes are developed against delightful, fleet-footed counterpoint Hamelin's playing is also most exceptional, toying with the melody and, through total but never indulgent command of voicing, allowing us to hear all the notes with clarity and making sure that each of them – and there are a lot – forms part of a larger idea.

The work based on Die Fledermaus is perhaps the best known (it appeared on Piers Lane's disc of 'Strauss Transcriptions', recently re-released on Helios, for example) and is famous for its particularly ingenious intertwining of melodies. There might be times when one senses Godowsky's contrapuntal experiments lead to him thinking more vertically than horizontally and the overall effect of the music loses its way. Elsewhere in this and the other pieces, though, the sophistication is undeniable; his way of deconstructing or setting the melodies askew brings to mind Ravel's La valse, although informed more by hazy nostalgia, without the French composer's acerbic edge. After all, as Nicholas points out, the composer's stay in the Austrian capital in the five years preceding the First World War – the period during which all three larger transcriptions were composed – were 'among the happiest of his life'. The longest work, that based on Künstlerleben, does rather lose its defining Viennese levity in the final couple of minutes as the notes are piled on but, even as it teeters on the edge of Lisztian hyperbole, Hamelin's sovereign command means that it still retains a certain charm and sophistication.  

Throughout the three longer pieces, Hamelin's playing is simply breathtaking in its virtuosity. However, he has been careful in programming the disc to prevent any feeling of overindulgence and intersperses them with selections of smaller pieces, all of them delightful miniatures. It's a measure of the pianist's musicianship that he is every bit at home in these works. There are fewer places to hide without the torrents of notes, and Hamelin treats each with care and obvious affection. The four numbers from Walzermasken (1911) range from the atmospheric 'Pastell', a wistful portrait of Schubert, to the longer 'Portrait -  Joh. Str.', which gets closer to the musical world of the Metamorphoses.

The remaining pieces on the disc all date from after Godowsky's forced flight from Vienna, and show him looking back with even greater fondness from the across the Atlantic. Triakontameron, 'thirty moods and scenes in triple measure', was composed in 1919 and includes perhaps the composer's best known original composition, 'Alt Wien'. The four other numbers that Hamelin includes from the set, though, are every bit as evocative. 'The Salon', sounds in places less Viennese than French (hints of Debussy's La plus que lente) while 'Memories' is remarkable, between the skipping waltz episodes, for its exploration of pianistic colours, again at times more redolent of French music than anything else. The disc concludes with another delicacy, the 'idealized version' of Oscar Straus's The Last Waltz which Hamelin's father himself transcribed from Godowsky's piano roll. Needless to say, Hamelin fils performs it with all the finesse and style one could hope for, eloquent testimony to a shared passion.

These are virtuoso showpieces for grown-ups, leavened with some delightful smaller works, in performances that are as close to ideal as one can imagine. Amplified by excellent documentation and recorded in typically fine sound, this is both a must for pianophiles and a perfect introduction to Godowsky's world for those yet to discover it.

UK Release Date: 2 August 2008

By Hugo Shirley