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Piano Sonata in E minor

'Godowsky: Sonata & Passacaglia' (CDA67300)
Godowsky: Sonata & Passacaglia
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Movement 1: Allegro non troppo, ma appassionato
Movement 2: Andante cantabile
Movement 3: Allegretto vivace e scherzando
Movement 4: Allegretto grazioso e dolce
Movement 5: Retrospect: Lento, mesto – Larghetto lamentoso – Fuga: Molto espressivo – Maestoso, lugubre

Piano Sonata in E minor
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. 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.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2002

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