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Hyperion Records

CDA67300 - Godowsky: Sonata & Passacaglia
Recording details: August 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: January 2002
Total duration: 65 minutes 55 seconds


'Hamelin’s performance is a magnificent achievement … All lovers of Godowsky’s magic will snap up this finely recorded album' (Gramophone)

'Breathtakingly brilliant … Marc-André Hamelin proves not only that it’s possible, but that it’s definitely worth the effort. Revelatory’ (BBC Music Magazine)

'a work that becomes more fascinating and absorbing with repeated hearings … this is a mandatory disc for Godowskyites and for connoisseurs of great pianism' (International Record Review)

'Hamelin’s performance, as one might expect, is magnificent in every way, charged with intensity, colorful, clear, and richly detailed by means of the pianist’s consummate technique' (American Record Guide)

'Spellbinding performances … a heightened degree of poetic sensitivity … a rare eloquence, courtesy of Hamelin’s jaw-dropping pianism' (Classic FM Magazine)

'eloquent, pointed, and moving … A recommendation would be superfluous – this is one for the ages' (Fanfare, USA)

'Marc-André Hamelin easily copes, both musically and technically; no doubt Godowsky would have approved' (Pianist)

'Handily coupled and as well played as you're ever likely to hear' (International Piano)

'Marc-André Hamelin has the phenomenal technique and razor-sharp musical intellect to succeed with this music where others usually fail … In Hamelin we have a pianist not only equal to the task, but enthusiastic about it … this is a recording every pinaophile should hear and hear again! … an astonishing achievement, imaginatively created and brilliantly realised – and beautifully recorded as well. What a bonus' (

'Hamelin has something extra—a touch of demonic fire … Hamelin turns out a breathtaking performance' (Punch)

'On sait que Marc-André Hamelin possède l’une des plus remarquables techniques pianistiques de notre temps, et l’on ne peut que le remercier de la mettre au service d’œvres méconnues' (Répertoire, France)

'Marc-André Hamelin passe son ‘examen de virtousité’ avec panache' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)

'Marc-André Hamelin, pianiste ‘d’élite’ des causes virtuoses (et rarement perdues), sait nous convaincre de l’intérêt de cette œvre' (Classica, France)

Sonata & Passacaglia

Famed for his piano miniatures and his fantastically elaborate transcriptions, Godowsky wrote only two large-scale original works for the piano. The huge five-movement Sonata (1910/11), one of the most imposing works of its type, is powerfully dramatic and, like most Godowsky, often very contrapuntal. It has a beautiful slow movement, a delightful scherzo, and a monumental 20-minute finale that includes a fugue on the name B-A-C-H. It deserves to be far better known. The Passacaglia was written in 1927 in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Schubert's death, and is subtitled '44 variations, cadenza and fugue on the opening theme of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony'. The piece has earned a reputation as being among the most difficult in the repertoire, partly because of Horowitz's flippant comment that it required six hands to play it - it is in fact superbly pianistic. This is the first time that these two works have appeared on the same disc.

Anyone who has heard Marc-André Hamelin's Gramphone Award-winning set of Godowsky's complete Studies after Chopin's Etudes will want this equally phenomenal follow-up. The performances are spectacular.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Leopold Godowsky was born on 13 February 1870 in Sozly, a little town not far from Vilnius, the ancient capital of Lithuania. Though almost entirely self-taught, he became not only one of the greatest pianists of the age (in certain matters of technique, he has been described as probably unique in keyboard history) but among the most original and influential composers for his instrument. From 1900, when a sensational debut in Berlin established him overnight as primus inter pares, until 1930 when an incapacitating stroke cruelly terminated his concert career, Godowsky was in the top handful of the world’s highest-paid and most sought-after instrumentalists. After 1915 he made his home in America (he had become a US citizen as early as 1891) and died in New York on 21 November 1938.

Godowsky’s reputation as a composer rests on the series of 53 elaborations and transformations of Chopin’s Études (recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67411/2) and on his transcriptions of works by Schubert, Saint-Saëns, Albéniz, Johann Strauss II and others. Only one of his original compositions has achieved an enduring appeal—Alt Wien, number 11 of the thirty brief character pieces entitled Triakontameron, also recorded by Mr Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67275). Godowsky wrote no concerto for the piano, nor any full-length chamber music involving the keyboard. Apart from a lost juvenile sonata and an unlocated third sonata in manuscript, the two works presented here are Godowsky’s only large-scale compositions. Both are for solo piano. This is the first time they have appeared together on the same disc.

Piano Sonata in E minor
(composed 1910/11; published Schlesinger, Berlin, 1911
Meiner lieben Frau gewidmet [Dedicated to my dear wife])

The once fashionable form of the piano sonata had long since reached its apogee before 1911 when Godowsky’s mammoth work appeared. The Dukas Sonata (1901), Balakirev’s B flat minor Sonata (1905) and Berg’s Op 1 (1906–8) were the three most notable (and musically disparate!) examples of the genre produced in the preceding decade, with Prokofiev’s and Rachmaninov’s second sonatas following in 1912 and 1913 respectively. Godowsky’s E minor Sonata (not ‘Grand Sonata’ as it has mistakenly appeared elsewhere) has a special claim to our attention amongst its distinguished contemporaries if only for its unusual length (1,003 bars in 56 pages) and structure:

Allegro non troppo, ma appassionato — Epilogue (andante tranquillo)
Andante cantabile
Allegretto vivace e scherzando
Allegretto grazioso e dolce
Retrospect (lento mesto) — Larghetto lamentoso — Fuga on theme B–A–C–H — Dies irae (maestoso lugubre)

Godowsky was living in Vienna at the time of the sonata’s composition, having been appointed director of the Piano School of the Imperial Academy of Music in 1909. He had composed no original works since 1899, having devoted his creative energies during that decade solely to transcriptions. Unusually, these were not arrangements of songs or orchestral works but of other composers’ keyboard works—the growing number of Chopin–Godowsky Studies, arrangements of Henselt’s Op 2 No 6 study ‘Si oiseau j’étais’ (1899), Renaissance suite (sixteen free transcriptions of the works of Rameau, Lully and other old masters, 1906–9), and a contrapuntal concert paraphrase of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (1905). Only the ‘Symphonic Metamorphoses’ on themes from Johann Strauss II’s Künstlerleben (1905) and Die Fledermaus (1907) had their origins away from the piano.

He began work on the sonata in St Beatenberg, Switzerland, in the summer of 1910, though its first sketches date from 30 August 1896 according to the manuscript held in the Library of Congress. Godowsky gave the first performance at the Bechstein Hall, London, on 28 January 1911. The Sonata was published by Schlesinger (Berlin) in June of that year bearing a dedication to the composer’s wife, Frieda Saxe, whom he had married almost exactly twenty years earlier.

When Godowsky played the work in Berlin, the German critics hailed it as the most important of its kind since Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op 5. The American critic James Huneker saw in it ‘subtle imitations of Brahms, Chopin, Liszt—Liszt only in the scherzo—and its altogether Godowskian colour and rhythmic life’. ‘Instead of exhuming such an ungrateful work as Tchaikovsky’s Sonata in G’, he wrote later in 1920, ‘pianists of calibre might more profitably introduce the Godowsky work. He is too modest or else too indifferent to put it on his programmes’. The Musical Courier (Vol 63 Nos 5 and 6, published in New York in 1911) featured an extended analysis of Godowsky’s Sonata by the English-American pianist and composer Vernon Spencer (1875–1949), an article written even before the music had been published. These extracts by a contemporary commentator are worth quoting at length and make interesting reading in tandem with Mr Hamelin’s own insightful observations below.

Having noted the ‘very large proportions’ of the work, Spencer draws attention to the close relation of the fifth and first movements:

… the former having as an introduction a ‘Retrospect’ built on themes of the latter, while the second, third and fourth movements are in a way connected with one another, and to be considered as a group expressing various phases of a definite poetic idea. The first movement, which is in strict sonata form is, despite its length and the complicated thematic development of the exposition, a gem as regards nobility of structure and cleverness of conception. It contains six themes and side themes, and curiously the first subject is not the principal one and remains untouched in the exposition. […] The first and third themes of the second movement are lyrical and sweetly reflective, the second full of longing and more animated, and the whole movement full of the MacDowell spirit of manly tenderness. The third movement is written in true scherzo style, is light and dainty, yet occasionally dangerously close to the borderline of the popular. It offers the player ample opportunity to display a fine wrist technique. Without any inkling of the poetic fancy which binds these movements together, the fourth one—a Strauss–Tausig–Schülz-Evler–Godowsky valse—might seem out of place and redundant … This dance form, however, has already been used by Tchaikovsky in his Fifth Symphony and by Strauss in his Zarathustra, though I believe it is the first time it has crept into a sonata. The fifth movement begins with a ‘Retrospect’ in which only themes of the first movement are used, this time having, however, quite a different import. This introduction leads to the Larghetto lamentoso, which is also a strong impression of the same spirit which moved MacDowell … This beautiful [section] is followed by a fugue on B–A–C–H [B flat–A–C–B natural in German nomenclature], a regular Hexenstück of clever counterpoint, yet expressive and full of mood. To mention but a few of its contrapuntal intricacies—the counterpoint of the theme is the theme itself in diminution; the original theme is used simultaneously with its enlargement and diminution; and finally, the stretch contains the theme in E and A minor together!’

The fugue dissolves into a funeral march which itself then elides into the ominous chant of the Dies irae. Spencer adds: ‘With a repetition of the march after this episode in E major the sonata closes quickly and impressively’.

Two footnotes of incidental interest to the last movement: first, the Larghetto lamentoso section was arranged for violin and piano, becoming No 1 of Twelve Impressions for Violin and Piano, and in its arrangement for cello and piano No 1 of Four Impressions for Cello and Piano. The former was played at Godowsky’s funeral by Mischa Elman and Harry Kaufman. (This version has also been recorded by Mats Lidström and Bengt Forsberg—Hyperion CDA67184.) Secondly, the fugue on B–A–C–H is quite different from Godowsky’s equally fascinating—yet much more difficult—Prelude and Fugue for the left hand alone, written on the same subject and composed nearly two decades later.

Marc-André Hamelin on Godowsky’s Sonata

As with many other fields, fashions in piano recitals come and go. Several decades ago it was de rigeur to begin a concert with an imposing Bach transcription, such as Busoni’s reworking of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The passage of time saw this tradition being eclipsed by ever-different concepts in recital programming as well as by various masterpieces going in and out of favour. We may lament the disappearance of certain works from the concert stage but it is equally if not more sad to consider the fate of those works which were never given a single chance. One notable example is Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Grande Sonate which, when published in 1848, went almost completely unnoticed and had to wait well over half a century for anyone to take interest in it and still much, much later for its first recording to appear. Fortunately, those who have now heard it would be hard put not to recognize that it is a monumental creative achievement. Some even welcome hearing it again and again … It is my fervent desire that this recording will contribute in some measure to the resurgence of Godowsky’s Sonata, a similarly neglected work.
I must say that I am at a loss to determine exactly why the Godowsky Sonata has almost never been heard. The work is of course very long, but certainly not more so than the ‘Goldberg’ or ‘Diabelli’ variations, and certainly shorter than some of the Mahler symphonies that audiences have long accepted as an essential part of the repertoire. And as for the general concensus that Godowsky’s piano writing is accessible only to the foolhardiest of pianists, I can only say that the Sonata is a great deal less pianistically demanding than the Rachmaninov concertos that most young pianists are eager to tackle. (The work is actually extremely difficult, but for other—and not immediately obvious—reasons entirely. More later.)
A close examination reveals a noble, sincere work of great power, rich in every conceivable manner of detail and imbued with a deep lyricism not often matched by other sonatas of a similarly Germanic mould. The first movement, in particular, is arguably the greatest manifestation of Godowsky’s lyrical gift. His particular harmonic and contrapuntal stamp is everywhere evident, despite some passing whiffs of other composers such as Brahms (in the opening) or Rachmaninov (near the end of the composition). But if a spiritual cousin to this movement must be found, then it would have to be the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, Op 58. The similarities are obvious: the minor mode, metre, rhythmic contour, figurations, textures, thematic contour, upright nobility of character, élan, and so on.
There is much to admire everywhere, from the smallest detail to the overall control of the architecture, and were the work to end here it would provide ample aesthetic satisfaction and constitute a single-movement structure that many a composer at the time might have been extremely proud of. Because of this, one might criticize Godowsky for carrying us even farther through four additional movements; but they are in such contrast with each other that the listener’s fascination in experiencing the beauties of the first movement is apt to remain intact or be further increased.
The lyrical Andante (originally entitled ‘Aria’) might perhaps stylistically call to mind something of the order of Grieg’s song Ich liebe dich, but is more satisfyingly varied in every single respect; its beautiful cantilena, inspiring episodes of great passion as well as ones of hushed tenderness, caused Godowsky to transcribe it for violin and piano, re-titling it Poème (No 5 of Twelve Impressions for Violin and Piano).
Next comes the third movement—‘Intermezzo’ in the manuscript—with its intriguing mix of grace and grotesquerie. The whole is a rather angular kind of balletic episode, tinged with a few ghostly phrases.
The appearance of a waltz might initially seem out of place, especially if one expects something similar to Godowsky’s numerous other essays in the genre. But this is no blazing valse de concert, and certainly quite unlike the richly complex Johann Strauss paraphrases on which Godowsky’s fame partly rests. Though somewhat boisterous in the middle section, this movement is predominantly wistful and graceful; the caressing chromaticism of the opening is pure Godowsky.
The beginning of the extensive and multi-sectioned fifth movement carries with it a sense of inevitability, if only because it recapitulates, in the space of just one page, all of the thematic material of the first movement. The great emotional weight of what follows—a Larghetto lamentoso of Baroque solemnity, a brooding fugue on the B–A–C–H motif, and a funeral march—might appear to have been prompted by some tragedy in Godowsky’s life, although to my knowledge this fifth movement was not inspired by any extra-musical occurrence. I see it as something more abstract; certainly the fact that Godowsky labelled the two maggiore sections towards the end of the movement as ‘Samsara, Nirvana’ in the manuscript surely dissociates the music from any earthly realities.
It is in this last movement that the real difficulty of the work resides: the succession of sombre episodes, intended nevertheless to form a cohesive whole, presents some of the most formidable problems of architectural control that performers are likely to encounter anywhere. The global design of this movement is indeed unique, and unusual enough to have convinced William S Newman in The Sonata since Beethoven that it throws the whole work out of balance. A close, prolonged and open-minded study of the work mightily disproves this.
Though it will never become an essential part of the repertoire, an occasional airing of this magnificent sonata will bring some variety to piano recital programming, a field which is at present badly in need of some refreshment.

Passacaglia: 44 variations, cadenza and fugue on the opening theme of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony; composed 1927; published Fischer, New York, 1928; No dedication

Though Godowsky himself came to regard his over-two-hundred shorter works as his best efforts, he was justly proud of the extraordinary Passacaglia as he revealed in a letter to his friend and former pupil Maurice Aronson. It is dated 23 October 1927 just two days after he had completed the composition:

While I wrote at Atlantic City 44 variations and a Cadenza in about a fortnight [completed on 25 September], it took me weeks to write here [in New York] the Fugue which closes the Passacaglia. It is my most important work since the Sonata (17 years ago!), is considerably more mature (no wonder!) and touches depths which only intense suffering can produce—but there is emancipation and defiance in it. The Passacaglia gave me new strength and a feeling of aloofness. I hope you will not interpret this as a gesture of conceit or bravado. I simply believe that my latest work is a great expression of human loftiness. While composing it I felt I was purifying my soul and looking close into eternity.

Schubert had preoccupied Godowsky’s thoughts during the previous year—he had transcribed twelve of Schubert’s songs for piano solo during the latter part of 1926. The principal inspiration for the Passacaglia was the imminent centenary of Schubert’s death in November 1828 (‘a heartfelt tribute to this precious and prolific genius who, despite his short and uneventful life, succeeded so admirably in transforming our innermost emotions into music’, wrote Godowsky in his introduction to the published score). The work received its premiere in April 1928 at Queen’s Hall, London.

‘Although Godowsky’s extraordinary Passacaglia has had a number of performances in the last couple of decades, it will be some time before it is recognized for what it is’, writes Marc-André Hamelin. ‘Some of its daunting reputation stems from an unfortunate and rather silly remark that Vladimir Horowitz once made [see below]. A look at the score reveals that, although admittedly greatly demanding, the work is certainly not out of reach pianistically, and more pianists should be encouraged to discover this noble and majestic creation. The range of invention displayed throughout this weighty and reverential tribute is enormous. Godowsky employs a good variety of textures and harmonic activity, as well as some very imaginative counterpoints. These devices help in overcoming what some would consider a weakness, namely the fact that, save for one variation, the entire passacaglia portion of the work never moves away from B minor or major. The composer Kaikhosru Sorabji thought enough of the Passacaglia to write (in Mi Contra Fa, Porcupine Press, London, 1947) that it deserved a place alongside a work such as Reger’s Bach Variations, Op 81, even stating that Godowsky’s opus “far surpasses [Reger’s] in sustained pianistic interest and variety of treatment”. This statement’, Hamelin continues, ‘should more than sufficiently prepare listeners for this monumental work, an endlessly fascinating and totally unique exploitation of the limitless possibilities of variation form’.

Schubert’s theme remains intact save for the addition of an anacrustic F sharp which facilitates elision between the variations. During the course of these, Godowsky takes the opportunity to pay tribute to several other composers. There is an acknowledgement of Bach’s great Passacaglia in C minor in Godowsky’s choice of this ancient form, and another to Brahms and the passacaglia in his Fourth Symphony. The writing has stylistic references to Brahms himself (variations 31–35, 38, 39), Chopin (9, 27), Rachmaninov (19, 20, 24) and others—Scarlatti, Ravel, Richard Strauss—including a reference to Schubert’s Erlkönig in variation 37. The music is dominated by a mood of dark, anguished brooding, reflecting Godowsky’s pessimistic state of mind at the time. In a further letter to Aronson written a few weeks after the Passacaglia’s completion he confided:

I am constantly in a state of depression. I really think there is no purpose that we, mortals, can find in our being here and having all those terrifying puzzling things around us and about us. Why? Wherefore? What do even the sublimest efforts of mortal geniuses amount to in the scheme of Cosmic phenomena?

In recent years the Passacaglia has occasionally been heard in concert, and a handful of recordings have appeared—including an earlier one by Marc-André Hamelin for Les entreprises Radio-Canada / CBC Enterprises (now unavailable). Few pianists from previous generations concerned themselves with it. Simon Barere was one notable exception and his erstwhile classmate Vladimir Horowitz went so far as to prepare it for performance. Horowitz’s reported excuse for abandoning it (‘It’s hopeless! You need six hands to play it’) sounds utterly implausible from an artist with such a formidable technical powers. It is a remark quoted by Godowsky’s daughter Dagmar in her highly imaginative memoirs First Person Plural (The Viking Press, New York, 1958). When we realize that Horowitz never once programmed a piece of Godowsky’s music, we may draw our own conclusions as to why he deserted the Passacaglia. In any case, such an excuse would certainly not have pleased Godowsky. It angered him to hear criticism of his work based on its sheer difficulty. ‘My music is not difficult’, he told one reporter. ‘Some of it is hard to read perhaps, but I insist that it is not difficult to play. I have small hands and I write my music so that it is pianistic—to fit the hand.’ What particularly irritated him, as expressed in a letter written towards the end of his life, was that ‘too many pianists were too indolent mentally and physically to make the supreme effort. My compositions have such a personal idiom, involved inner voices, complicated contrapuntal and polyrhythmic devices, sonorities of a new kind, that the hoi-polloi of pianists keep away from them’.

Proof—if proof were needed—of Godowsky’s keyboard authority is provided by Abram Chasins in his book Speaking of Pianists (Knopf, New York, 1961). In it he describes the evening when he joined Ossip and Clara Gabrilowitsch, Ernest Hutcheson, Rubin Goldmark and Josef Hofmann in Godowsky’s apartment to hear the Passacaglia for the first time. Godowsky played it reading from green-coloured proof sheets stacked on the piano rack:

And how he played! 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 by what I heard, Godowsky’s effortless mastery made me unaware of the vastness of his pianistic feat that night. Years later I realised it when one of the greatest virtuosos told me that he had worked on the ‘fiendish piece’ for a year, several hours each day, and had finally had to give up the unequal struggle. ‘It is impossible to master’, he said. I felt tactful that day and refrained from telling him with what devastating ease Godowsky had disposed of it, making it seem like nothing at all.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2002

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