Top Ear

Godowsky from Berezovsky: A Blast of Fresh Air

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Leonard Ip writes

Where should we begin? Anyone who enters the pit of the Godowsky-Chopin etudes are up to the toughest competition posed by Marc-André Hamelin, whose recording of the complete set moved the musical world by winning the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. Cognoscenti, in addition, will have Carlo Grante’s complete survey on Music & Arts in mind for reference, not to mention individual recordings by Saperton and Bolet. More than capable of distinguishing the pianist as part of this elitist circle, Berezovsky’s recording can be safely recommended for beginners and cognoscenti alike.

It needs a certain kind of pianist to bring off Godowsky’s knotty pianistic language and florid (at times suffuse) musical ideas. An heir of Russian pianism, Berezovsky does not immediately come to mind when the composer’s name is mentioned. Many have come to know Godowsky through Hamelin’s extensive recordings, in which Godowsky’s original compositions, subtle and interwoven, matches seamlessly with Hamelin’s reserved and aristocratic temperament. The Studies on Chopin Etudes, however, present a different case. The Studies too are imbued with Godowsky’s style, but they remain pianistic studies and, most importantly, musical ideas wrought by Chopin. While Hamelin may dominate tastes for Godowsky’s original compositions, these transcriptions have a greater stylistic flexibility and would more easily sound comfortable in other pianists not entirely devoted to this repertoire.

In this live recording, Berezovsky combines his firm, forceful Russian pianism with fineness and sensibility empathetic to Godowsky’s refined idiom. The result is a triumph: practically never we have heard on recording Godowsky played with such fire and grace. The 1st study (1st version of Op. 10/1) is less carefully shaped as Hamelin’s, but Berezovsky’s fingers hurdle an unstoppable flow of power, clarity and grandeur. Likewise, the 9th study, an A minor tarantella made out of Op. 10/5 (‘Black-key’), is unmatched for its excitement, spontaneity and truly dance-like attacks. Two of the three left hand studies included on this disc are in C sharp minor (6th and 22nd studies, respectively on Op. 10/4 and Op. 10/12) – the awkward hand positions may have contributed to a sense of struggle (which, to me, makes it all the more exciting), but mostly it’s Berezovsky’s gripping playing that puts one at the edge of one’s seat.

The famous ‘Ignis Fatuus’ (4th study, 2nd version of Op. 10/2) receives a delicate and idiomatically lilting rendition. Here, one might pick on voices that Hamelin highlights more clearly, but Berezovsky has his own idea on the intricate counterpoint – an indispensable merit also in full display in the 7th study (2nd version of Op. 10/5), where he builds up the climax (circa 1:11-1:19) subtly and gracefully. To some this can seem an understatement (as opposed to Hamelin’s more straightforward approach), but the capricious and finely-graded touching wins me over.

I always have a weak spot for the C sharp minor Mazurka made out of Op. 25/5 (34th study). Hamelin has nothing to lose in fineness and clarity, but it is Berezovsky who truly makes the most out of this hopelessly charming mazurka: the mercurial character (articulation and pedalling), the warmth and intimacy (tone and dynamics) and the rhythmic pulse (Berezovsky apparently brakes more sensitively). I must have listened to this track for some thousand times. The cloud of harmony in 25th study (3rd version of Op. 25/1 – misprint on both the back of the disc and the booklet note shows the 2nd version, but Berezovsky played the 3rd) has all the cantabile and smoothness needed – precisely the exquisite voicing that ranks Berezovsky highly in the Godowsky pantheon.

The pianist’s intelligent, sensitive voicing and charm go all the way through the two Godowsky encores: Alt-Wien and a transcription of Chopin’s ‘Minute Waltz’. Alt-Wien is played with disarming lightness, simplicity and a sweetly nostalgic aura unique in Godowsky’s music. Sparkles and flashes burst over everywhere in the transcription, thanks to Berezovsky’s utterly inspired playing.

Berezovsky plays Godowsky’s studies alongside Chopin’s originals in this recital. This feature, while indeed unique, seems more a drawback than a selling-point to me. It’s reasonable for me that listeners who aim at the Godowsky should be enough familiar with Chopin’s originals to make comparisons with the transcriptions, and who wouldn’t want more Godowsky, instead of Chopin, from Berezovsky? (Given, of course, Berezovsky’s Chopin etudes are well-played but nowhere as stunning as the Godowsky.) In the end, though, playing all Godowsky studies in a recital may be a bit taxing for the performer as well as for the listener and the programme is understandable. While the sad fact that this probably will be the only Godowsky output from Berezovsky has to be acknowledged, the live concert performance gives us infinitely more pleasure and freshness than studio recordings can. The sonics is state-of-the-art, capturing the most detailed, full-bodied and warm piano sound heard in recent times (far surpassing what Hyperion did for Hamelin), and the disc is accompanied by excellent programme notes by Bryce Morrison. No pianophile can afford to miss this spectacular release.

Chopin-Godowsky Etudes
Piano: Boris Berezovsky
Warner Classics 2564 62258-2
Stereo DDD 54:24


Berezovsky played Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto with the HKPO in 2008. I caught him just outside the backstage, surrounded by old ladies speaking in French (I was awestruck when one of them asked me for a pen in perfect Cantonese). I went up, thanked him for the performance, and asked for his autograph. ‘Why didn’t you record all of the studies?’ was what I, a disappointed little fan, asked him. He laughed and replied, ‘It’s too much!’ Then he asked me, ‘Do you play the piano?’ I said yes. ‘You record them!’

I still remember vividly the scene afterwards, of him smoking and hanging out on the street of Tsim Sha Tsui.


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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