In the last quarter of the 19th century a special kind of virtuoso pianist came into being. Following on the heels of the first great virtuosos like Chopin and Liszt, they bestrode the world’s concert platforms like gods for some seventy years. What made them extraordinary, apart from their ability to play blizzards of notes with caressing sweetness and titanic force, was the fact that they all composed. The style of their music derived from Chopin and Liszt but was even more glittery and difficult. But as time went on and tastes became more purist, the showiness of their style seemed more and more dated. People wanted either serious Bach and Beethoven, or something modern and ‘cutting-edge’. On both counts the virtuoso pianists seemed lacking.
So they vanished, leaving behind their legendary names, thousands of scratchy old recordings and hundreds of pieces with charmingly old-fashioned names like 'Rhapsody' and 'Melodia Appassionata'. Now their music is being revived by a younger generations of pianists. One of them is the Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. His latest recording is a collection of pieces composed by virtuoso pianists in homage to perhaps the greatest of them all: Leopold Godowsky.
Gugnin has approached the job with touching seriousness, avoiding the obvious pot-boilers and tracking down some really obscure pieces in music libraries, including a delicious Scherzo-Étude by the Italian pianist Eugenio Pirani. It’s a shame this CD is not a DVD, because the constant incredibly fast hand-crossings in this piece must be a sight to behold. Still to hear them is astonishing enough. There are many other equally delicious things on this disc, which is one of the most sheerly enjoyable CDs I’ve heard in a long time.
The pieces by older pianists, particularly Theodor Leschetizky cleave closely to Chopin’s style, the ones from pianists born in the 1870s or 80s like Ossip Gabrilowitsch are more exotically coloured harmonically. The opening piece Vision by Josef Hofmann—who apparently could play forcefully enough with his little finger to break a piano string—actually veers quite close to the visionary music of Scriabin, proving these composers weren’t completely immune to the modernism all around them. But most of the pieces have a combination of sentimentality and glitter that is irresistible, especially in such winning and flexible performances as these. It’s the ideal listen to keep coronavirus blues at bay.