Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDA67626 - Godowsky: Strauss transcriptions & other waltzes
Emilie Floege by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Historishes Museum der Stadt, Vienna / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: December 2007
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2008
Total duration: 68 minutes 43 seconds


'Cultured musicianship, extraordinary keyboard proficiency and unflappable tonal control … Hamelin is a seasoned and subtle orchestrator at the piano … some of Hamelin's most poetic, lyrically inspired playing on disc. All told, a stellar achievement, graced by Hyperion's close-up yet ample engineering' (Gramophone)

'There's no need for analogies about a surfeit of Viennese cream cakes with this excellent CD: the musical invention is so brilliant and varied, and the performance so coruscating, that one's attention is firmly held. The liner note is genuinely illuminating' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This latest marvel from Marc-André Hamelin explores Leopold Godowsky's relationship with the Viennese waltz … these pieces are more than just for show, and Hamelin brings out their poetic intent as much as their panache and vivid energy' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hamelin's playing is infinitely seductive and flawlessly judged in its mixture of panache, grace and charm' (The Guardian)

'Marc-André Hamelin, it hardly needs saying, is precisely the pianist for this music … no-one since Godowsky's son-in-law, David Saperton, has played it with such discernment; and not even Saperton had Hamelin's technical command or his variety of timbre, touch and mood … bravura handled with exquisite tact. If you are looking for an example of pianistic grace under fire, you won't find anything better … all in all, a caviar release' (International Record Review)

'How many fingers does Hamelin have? Thirty would be a conservative estimate, though the magic of his piano playing lies in his subtlety and flow, never in any shallow brilliance … the succulent recording is the cherry on the cake' (The Times)

'These virtuoso pieces, effortlessly executed by Hamelin, are pure pleasure' (The Sunday Times)

'The sheer pianistic ability of this artist never fails to astonish' (Liverpool Daily Post)

Strauss transcriptions & other waltzes
Künstlerleben  [14'55]
No 2: Pastell  [2'05]
Die Fledermaus  [11'04]
No 4: Rendezvous  [2'46]
No 11: Alt Wien  [2'39]
No 21: The Salon  [3'02]
No 25: Memories  [3'48]
Theme: Waltz  [2'33]

Marc-André Hamelin’s programme is mostly devoted to Godowsky’s works based on themes by—or directly inspired by—Johann Strauss II. It is not intended to be a comprehensive survey but is, nevertheless, fully representative of Godowsky’s finest reflections on the Waltz King. In the three great Strauss transcriptions, Godowsky elevated the art of the piano paraphrase to a higher musical and pianistic plane; however their extreme technical difficulty remains a striking feature and places them out of the reach of ordinary pianists. And Marc-André Hamelin is, of course, no ordinary pianist—in fact his playing on a recent disc was compared to that of Alkan and Liszt.

Triakontameron and Walzermasken are rarely performed examples of Godowsky’s original work, and continue the composer’s love-affair with the waltz—they are written entirely in 3/4 time.

The last work on this dazzling disc is an oddity—indeed, a rarity. Sometime prior to 1925, Godowsky made a piano roll of his arrangement of The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus (1870–1954), the Vienna-born composer. The eponymous Waltz is heard throughout the 1920 operetta. The music of Godowsky’s transcription was never published for some unknown reason—it is a uniquely appealing arrangement. In the early 1970s, Gilles Hamelin, the pianophile father of Marc-André, notated, arranged and edited The Last Waltz from Godowsky’s piano roll, which was then published in 1975. Shortly afterwards, a copy of the negative of Godowsky’s manuscript was sent to Gilles Hamelin. It was all but illegible, so Hamelin Snr. made a fair copy in his own hand: in almost every respect it tallied with the version he had transcribed from the piano roll.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Johann Strauss II died in 1899. His music had come to define the era, painting a picture (albeit a rose-tinted one) of the opulent, confident, ever-gay Viennese, hedonistically dancing their well-heeled lives away in the capital of the Habsburg empire. In some ways Strauss’s death at the end of the century symbolized the end of the Habsburgs and the reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph (even if the history books tell us that he reigned until 1916). A mere fifteen years later, the First World War destroyed utterly any vestige of the old Vienna.

The Polish-born pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky made his home in this post-Strauss Waltz City from 1908 onwards, remaining there until the outbreak of hostilities, when he returned to his adopted country (he had become an American citizen in 1891). In 1900, following a decade in America teaching, giving concerts and composing, the thirty-year-old musician arrived in Berlin with his wife and three children. There, on 6 December, he made one of the most sensational debuts in history. It marked the turning point of his career, elevating him from the ranks of highly regarded soloists to a small elite group that included Rosenthal, d’Albert and Busoni. Godowsky’s programme began with Brahms’s D minor concerto and ended with Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor; in between came a series of his own Studies on Chopin’s Études and his ‘contrapuntal paraphrase’ on Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. One member of the audience, Arthur Abell, wrote in The Musical Courier: ‘Godowsky did things on the piano that evening that had never been heard before in this piano-ridden town. I shall never forget the unparalleled enthusiasm that his playing aroused. The next morning, all Berlin was ringing Godowsky’s name; the newspapers came out with columns of eulogies, and the public was wild over him.’

Godowsky quickly established himself in other important centres including Vienna, from where he could write to his friend and assistant Maurice Aronson (6 February 1904): ‘I got the public now, and I can assure you I am the topic of musical Vienna.’ Even the feared Julius Korngold, father of Erich Wolfgang, had been won over. ‘All my friends are jubilant over the article he wrote and they say this will settle my name here’, wrote Godowsky.

His subsequent successes in the city led him to be earmarked as early as 1906 for one of the most prestigious teaching posts in the world: the directorship of the Piano School at Vienna’s Kaiserliche Akademie für Musik, in succession to Busoni. He was unofficially sounded out for this in the summer of 1908. The position carried with it the rank of honorary colonel and was directly answerable to the Emperor. As such it was an unprecedented appointment for a Jew; nevertheless the Imperial Government bent over backwards to accommodate Godowsky’s exorbitant terms, which included reduced taxation and transport costs. The contract made him the highest-paid artist-teacher in Europe at that time.

Having moved to Vienna later that year, Godowsky began his duties early in 1909. The next five years were among the happiest of his life. Here he could combine all his composing, playing and teaching commitments in comfort, but with sufficient leeway to appear throughout Europe as a soloist—and enjoy a vivacious social life. Twice during this period he was given leave of absence to tour America. At the Meisterschule für Klavier, the pupils of the Imperial Royal Professor included Jan Smeterlin, Issai Dobrowen, Heinrich Neuhaus, Walter Rummel and Emmanuel Durlet, as well as others less well known who went on to have distinguished teaching careers. His friends numbered many of the great musicians of the day, most especially Josef Hofmann, Vladimir de Pachmann, Oscar Straus, Leo Fall, Franz Lehár and, among the younger generation, Arthur Rubinstein, Karol Szymanowski and Gregor Fitelberg.

This idyllic period came to an end in July 1914. Godowsky had taken a villa at Middelkerke, on the Belgian coast, for the summer. With him, as usual, were his pupils from the Vienna masterclass. Even after the assassination of the Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, he refused to entertain the possibility of any hostilities. In the event, on the very day that Great Britain declared war, Godowsky and his family managed by sheer good luck to scramble onto the last boat sailing from Ostende to England. After a brief stay there, Godowsky set sail for the United States, his home for the rest of his life.

Marc-André Hamelin’s programme is devoted to Godowsky’s works based on themes by—or directly inspired by—Johann Strauss II. It is not intended to be a comprehensive survey but is, nevertheless, fully representative of Godowsky’s finest reflections on the Waltz King.

By far the best known of these are the three Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes from Künstlerleben, Die Fledermaus and Wein, Weib und Gesang. (A fourth, lesser Strauss–Godowsky work, on the Schatz-Walzer themes from The Gyspy Baron for left hand alone, was added in 1928 though not published until 1941; of greater regret is the absence of Godowsky’s version of The Blue Danube, left in manuscript in Vienna at the outbreak of the First World War and never recovered.)

Godowsky’s Strauss paraphrases are not without precedent. Tausig, Rosenthal and Schulz-Evler are merely the three most familiar pianist-composers who had earlier taken vocal and instrumental themes by Strauss and turned them into virtuoso keyboard works. It was the popular Strauss arrangements of Schulz-Evler and others, most prominently Alfred Grünfeld and Eduard Schütt, which persuaded Godowsky that he could improve on their efforts. It was a genre with which he was thoroughly familiar: we find him programming Schütt’s concert paraphrase of the Kuss-Walzer (Chicago, 1897), the Strauss– Tausig valse-caprice Man lebt nur einmal (Chicago, 1898), his own version (prompted by Tausig’s) of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (Chicago, 1899) and the Schulz-Evler Concert Arabesques on themes from ‘By the beautiful blue Danube’ in his Berlin recitals of 1903 and 1904.

Aided by the benefit of hindsight, Godowsky, interviewed in the American The Musical Observer (1920), was dismissive of the Schulz-Evler: ‘It is purely a virtuoso piece, whose musical values are slight. In a way I am responsible for its vogue since I played it a good deal when it first came out. But even then I omitted all its banal and empty interlude passages—they are musically impossible—and I kept on reshaping it each time I played it, until at last—there was no Schulz-Evler left!’

Later in the same article, Godowsky stressed that: ‘My Metamorphoses differ from the Eduard Schütt concert-paraphrases of some of the Strauss waltzes. The Schütt paraphrases seem to me to be just what I disapprove of, shallowly brilliant drawing-room pieces of a virtuoso cast [an admonishment, incidentally, that did not prevent Godowsky from recording two salon trifles by Schütt, À la bien-aimée and Étude mignonne, in the very same year] whereas virtuosity, as such, is the least part of my Metamorphoses, and everything in them is developed out of Strauss’s own music in an endeavour to build up a living, pulsing, colourful transformation of the simple original legitimately, by means of theme inversion and theme development, rich and glorified instrumental counterpoint, imitation and embellishment. Hear Josef Hofmann play the Fledermaus symphonic metamorphosis and you will understand why the term “symphonic” is used in the title of these free fantasies!’

(There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when Godowsky first played his Künstlerleben metamorphosis in his apartment to Josef Hofmann, the latter eagerly requested his friend to repeat the piece after supper; this Godowsky did. The next day, Hofmann called round again and played the entire piece from memory.)

The first of Godowsky’s trilogy to be completed was Künstlerleben (‘Artists’ Life’) based on Strauss’s Op 316 and composed just after The Blue Danube in 1867. At its first performance (Beethoven Saal, Berlin, 18 October 1905), it was entitled Contrapuntal Concert Paraphrase on J.Strauss II’s Waltz ‘Künstlerleben’. Given the acknowledgement to Strauss in the title, the composer is listed on the programme, simply and correctly, as ‘Godowsky’—discographers please note.

Wein, Weib und Gesang (‘Wine, Woman and Song’) is Strauss’s Op 333 and, like The Blue Danube, was originally a choral waltz commissioned by the Vienna Men’s Choral Society, though both are seldom heard in this form. The date of Godowsky’s arrangement is unknown but it follows the same pattern as Künstlerleben, that is a lengthy introduction of Godowsky’s devising followed by a procession of elaborate contrapuntal treatments of Strauss’s waltz themes in the same order as the Strauss originals.

The paraphrase on Die Fledermaus (‘The Bat’) has, necessarily, a different structure, its themes being taken from two acts of Strauss’s comic operetta premiered in Vienna in 1874 (the only one of his operas set in Vienna itself). Godowsky obligingly indicates which numbers he is using by placing the appropriate lyrics above or within the stave. Thus the opening bars have ‘Oh je, oh je, wie rührt mich dies’ (the Act I Trio), followed by ‘Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein’ (the ensemble from Act II) and, at varying intervals, snatches of ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ (Adele’s Laughing Song, Act II). In other words, there is no narrative logic to the themes: Godowsky uses them instead to weave his ingenious web at will: ‘Johann Strauss waltzing with Johann Bach’, according to Albert Lockwood (Notes on the Literature of the Piano, 1940).

Godowsky’s Die Fledermaus metamorphosis (not ‘pot-pourri’, as one leading record catalogue persists in titling the piece) was completed in November 1907. Godowsky was evidently pleased with himself, judging from the letter he wrote to Maurice Aronson the day he finished work on it: ‘Aside from what you know of the Valse, I have added several original features. Between the second theme of the first valse and the first theme of the second valse, I introduce a very short parody on Richard Strauss (something like Till Eulenspiegel and a bit of Salomé cacophony). It is rather amusing, not unmusical but queer, stranger than the beginning. The transition between the second theme of the second valse and the first theme of the third valse is perhaps the most delicately impassioned passage I have ever written—it has genuine vitality! I think the end is a complete success. You know how long I worry to bring a work like this to a proper climax … This part is almost unplayable, but will sound well when I can play it. A sudden modulation from E flat to E major, from ff to p, from bravura playing to poetry, and after several measures the real climax comes on gradually until it bursts into a triumph with a “Steigerung” quite Wagnerian. I think it very successful. I may be mistaken.’

Godowsky’s three Symphonische Metamorphosen Johann Strauss’scher Themen, Drei Walzer-paraphrasen für das Pianoforte zum Concert Vortrag were published by Cranz in 1912. Die Fledermaus is dedicated to Frau Johann Strauss (that is Strauss’s widow, Adele, his third wife); Künstlerleben is dedicated to Herrn und Frau Josef Simon; Wein, Weib und Gesang is dedicated to Herrn Regierungsrat Dr Heinrich Steger, a distinguished Viennese lawyer and member of the Board of Directors of the Conservatory who had first sounded out Godowsky about the directorship of the Piano School. If Godowsky’s aim was to elevate the art of the piano paraphrase to a higher musical and pianistic plane, then he certainly succeeded. ‘These [three works] are probably the last word in terpsichorean counterpoint’ (Lockwood again). This is only the fifth time that all three of Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses have appeared on the same disc—the others are by Edith Farnadi, Janice Weber (twice) and Antony Rollé. Unlike several recordings of these works, Mr Hamelin plays all three without cuts.

Godowsky’s Walzermasken was composed directly after the massive Sonata in E minor of 1911 (recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67300), and was published the following year, the same year as the three Symphonic Metamorphoses. Despite the prosaic subtitle (‘Twenty-four tone poems in triple time’), there is much to admire in these evocative miniatures imbued with the spirit of the Waltz City. The obvious precedent for such musical ‘masked balls’ is Schumann (Papillons, Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze, for example). Indeed the opening number of Godowsky’s cycle is named Karnaval and many of the others bear equally Schumannesque titles. In some of the pieces, famous composers are masked in affectionate pastiches (Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Johann Strauss); elsewhere Godowsky takes an idiomatic look at the Schuhplattler, Minuet, Berceuse and Humoreske (following Schumann’s lead, the four-note motif of the latter embodies the letters of a little Saxony town, the home of one of Godowsky’s early, unknown, sweethearts).

Godowsky intended the twenty-four Walzermasken to be played as a cycle (Portrait, the final number, quotes the opening theme of Karnaval) and, indeed, he gave the first public performance as such at the Bechstein Hall, London, on 19 March 1912. But he did not oppose the playing of selected pieces, as here. The publication of twelve of the pieces as separate numbers supports this. Pastell (No 2 in A major) is the portrait of Schubert referred to above; Französisch (No 14 in D major) and Wienerisch (No 22 in F major) are short, delightful salon waltzes with similar textures to Godowsky’s Strauss waltz paraphrases; Portrait—Joh. Str. (No 24 in G flat major) is by far the longest of the set and, fittingly, a homage to the Waltz King.

Among the first tasks Godowsky set himself on his return to America was to arrange Französisch and Wienerisch for inclusion in his Twelve Impressions for violin and piano, respectively as Valse in D (No 8) and Viennese (No 12)—both were recorded by Heifetz, the latter also by Kreisler.

Five years later, Godowsky returned once more to 3/4 time, though composing in a very different setting to Vienna. The work’s title, Triakontameron (‘Thirty moods and scenes in triple measure’), was inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of stories by the fourteenth-century Italian writer, the conceit of which is that over a period of ten days, ten people tell one hundred stories to each other. Godowsky’s thirty pieces took longer to write than thirty days, though twenty of them were composed in Seattle in twenty days, the remainder shortly afterwards in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The first, Sylvan Tyrol (No 2), was composed on 7 August 1919, the last, Rendezvous (No 4), on 5 February 1920. The complete Triakontameron was published by Schirmer in May that year.

These are picturesquely entitled miniatures of epigrammatic conciseness inspired by a variety of moods, places and experiences. Binding the whole set together with marvellous subtlety is the waltz rhythm. Many of the pieces reflect his adopted country—The Enchanted Glen, Whitecaps, American Idyl [sic], Little Tango Rag, and Requiem (1914–18), which climaxes in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—but a considerable number look back to the past. Mr Hamelin has chosen five for their particularly effective Viennese flavour: No 4, Rendezvous; No 13, the lively Terpsichorean Vindobona (‘Vindobona’ being the Latin name for the city); No 21, The Salon; No 25, Memories; and the most famous piece of the set—the most popular of Godowsky’s entire output—No 11, Alt Wien (‘Old Vienna’). These are haunting evocations of the vanished city of Gungl, Lanner and the Strausses. Retaining its maudlin subtitle (‘Whose Yesterdays look backwards with a Smile through Tears’), Alt Wien was reissued in 1933 with a number of small, subtle embellishments. It is this revised version that is heard here.

Finally, an oddity—indeed, a rarity. Sometime prior to 1925, Godowsky made an Ampico piano roll of his arrangement of The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus (1870– 1954), the Vienna-born composer (whose real name, not wholly incidentally for this recording, was ‘Strauss’—he cut off the second ‘s’ to avoid confusion with other musical Strausses to whom he was not related). The eponymous Waltz is heard throughout the 1920 operetta, but most notably at the end of Act I when Dimitri and Vera dance at the party of General Karsinski.

The music of Godowsky’s transcription was never published for some reason, for it is an appealing (as well as straightforward and technically accessible) arrangement. In the early 1970s, Gilles Hamelin, the pianophile father of Marc-André, notated, arranged and edited The Last Waltz from Godowsky’s piano roll. This was published in 1975 in The Audubon Series by Musical Scope Publishers, New York. Shortly afterwards, a copy of the negative of Godowsky’s manuscript was sent to Gilles Hamelin. It was all but illegible, so Hamelin Snr. made a fair copy in his own hand which in almost every respect tallied with the version he had transcribed from the piano roll.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2008

   English   Français   Deutsch