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 Recording of the Week  Leopold Godowsky and the virtuoso pianist

The Polish-born pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky is not a household name to many. Very few recordings of his playing exist, while his compositions are generally not considered ‘serious’ enough for any regular appearances.

Leopold Godowsky
Leopold Godowsky

Certainly the programme presented in a new release out today by Marc-André Hamelin subscribes to this non-serious view. For it is made of works based on themes by - or directly inspired by - Johann Strauss II. Godowsky arrived in Vienna in 1908 (nine years after the death of Johann Struass II). It must have been a time when Vienna was at a crossroads, coming to the end of the waltz-dominated dancing scene that the Strauss family had so popularised over the past hundred years, but also the breeding ground for one of the most revolutionary developments in Western Music at the time – namely the Second Viennese School led by Arnold Schoenberg.

As a composer Godowsky is probably known more for his transcriptions than for his original compositions. He had a strange love-affair with the waltz and on this disc as well as the three great remarkable Strauss transcriptions, are some of his own Triakontameron and Walzermasken, all written entirely in 3/4 time. They are pieces of extreme technical difficulty, which places them out of the reach of ordinary pianists. Luckily Marc-André Hamelin is, of course, no ordinary pianist, and there is also a nice family connection to the final piece on the disc – Godowsky’s arrangement of The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus. 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.

In all, a very attractive and strangely addictive disc, played by a truly phenomenal pianist. Much to enjoy, and there are a few short samples to whet your appetite below.

Godowsky - Strauss transcriptions and other waltzes

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Available Format: CD