Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Following up on Andrey Gugnin’s first Hyperion disc, of Shostakovich, this eighty-one-minute, five-star, successor is a piano-fancier’s delight. If you’re going to revive twenty-one largely forgotten encores – the only readily familiar one here is Liszt’s La campanella in Busoni’s 1915 transcription – then here’s how to do it. Breathtaking musicality, sterling pianism, a fabulously toned, gravity bass-ed, German handmade Bechstein D282, evocative space and acoustic, demonstration engineering (Arne Akselberg, 20-22 May 2019 at St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London).

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), Polish/American naturalised, was born in Lithuania. A Wunderkind, largely self-taught, protégé of Saint-Saëns, “the superman of piano playing … a pianist for pianists” (James Huneker), teacher of Jan Smeterlin, Issay Dobrowen, Heinrich Neuhaus, friend of Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein – his were the standards others tried to copy. All “the significant artists of the day assembled at Godowsky’s [New York] home with the regularity of homing pigeons,” recalled  Abram Chasins. “The only musician of his age”, believed Rachmaninov, “who has given a lasting, a real contribution to the development of piano music.” One of his sons married Gershwin’s sister. His youngest daughter, Dagmar – dancer, silent-screen actress, femme fatale, the woman, they say, who taught Nijinsky to foxtrot – was a spectre unto herself.

Devising this project, Jeremy Nicholas (Godowsky’s biographer) has dreamt up a scented anthology – refined feuilletons that come together winningly, each elegantly plumaged, never outstaying their welcome. Colleagues and companions, dedicatees, what Godowsky stood for – keyboard  transcendentalism – provide the unifying link. Melody, ornament, seduction. Glints and draperies. Silvered virtuosity, sensual sonorities, curvaceous cadences. A love-affair with the instrument. It’s a winning ticket.

Liszt/Busoni aside (the closing track), a dozen pianists-composers are represented. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), venerated friend: Four Charakterskizzen, Opus 40 (1908) – variously shimmering, stormy, sinister, spritely, soaring, the fourth, Kaleidoskop, a Cherkassky favourite. Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931): Étude for the left hand, Opus 15 (1905) – shades of spinning song and ascendant surges. Blumenfeld, who met Godowsky in Moscow, was the teacher of Barere and Horowitz. Emil von Sauer (1862-1942), Liszt’s famous pupil: Étude de concert No.19 in B-minor, Vision (1911) – feathers and chorale. Eugenio Pirani (1852-1939): Scherzo-Étude in G-flat, Opus 67 (1901) – will-o’-the-wisps hovering in summer twilight.

As Nicholas reminds, little is remembered about Pirani (no relation to his RAM namesake, Max), his scores being widely dispersed. Born in Ferrara, and a former student of Theodor Kullak, at whose Berlin academy he taught, he published a High School of Piano Playing, and, in 1922, a book, Secrets of the Success of Great Musicians. His son was the eminent German physicist Marcello Pirani, who from 1936 to 1952 lived in London, based at General Electric, Wembley.

Abram Chasins (1903-87), author of the inimitable Speaking of Pianists (1957/61), enjoying something of an online rebirth these days: Prelude No.13 in G-flat, Opus 12/1 (1928) – pastiche par excellence. Ignacy Friedman (1882-1948), for whom the page was a door to an infinity of feelings and beyonds: Three Klavierstücke, Opus 33 (1910) – the second a gem of a mazurka testing poetry, rubato and voicing; the third a mid-to-upper register ‘Music Box’ cameo, a Slavonic-weighted genre responsible over time for having produced more jewels than paste (Gugnin advantageously slower than Friedman’s own March 1927 Columbia recording).

Ossip Gabrilowitsch (1878-1936), disciple of the crème de la crème in Petersburg and Vienna – Anton Rubinstein, Liadov, Glazunov, Medtner, Leschetizky – who married the daughter of Mark Twain: Étude for the left hand, Opus 12/2 (1917) – dark, autumn winds, minorial. Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958): Rhapsodie Études, Opuses 42/4 & 5 (1903) – fantastical, troubled, under-currented.

On the face of it Holbrooke is the odd man out in this coterie. A prickly customer, pictured by one contemporary, post Great War, as “an excitable, deaf, talkative, combative musician, who lives in a solitary house in North London surrounded by ordinary Villadom, and writes there music which no one can play.” Well, his Opus 42 Studies, ten numbers in total with dedications including Sauer, Mark Hambourg and Percy Grainger, are grateful. Reputedly, he was an accomplished pianist – he trained at the RAM under Frederick Westlake (a student of the venerable “older school” Walter Macfarren) – with the big Concertos in his fingers as well as knuckle-breakers like the Schumann Toccata and Balakirev’s Islamey.

Constantin von Sternberg (1852-1924), a Philadelphia-based Russian taken up by Hofmann whose teachers included Moscheles, Friedrich Wieck, Reinecke and Kullak (possibly Liszt, mentioned in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians [1900] but absent from Alan Walker’s revised listing of pupils in the Lachmund diaries [1995]): Étude de concert No.5 in F, Opus 115 (1919) – dating, Nicholas notes discreetly, from “about the same time that Godowsky had become closely associated with a young pupil of his, Gertrude Huntley Green, a married woman” (his 1989 biography has more to say). Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), taught by Czerny, the master teacher of Vienna and an era: Trois morceaux, Opus 38 (1909) – Romantic throwbacks, glamour and virtuosity to the fore, a girl with a cigarette holder to be imagined close by.

Theodor [Tivadar] Szántó (1877-1934), a Hungarian student of Busoni who championed Bartók and Kodály, transcribed Bach and Stravinsky (an interesting Petrushka), and was dedicatee of the final version of Delius’s Piano Concerto, which he introduced at the 1907 Proms: Étude orientale No.3, en quartes (1932) – exotic, a little threatening, horses racing across the plain, rearing demons.  Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), the German wanderer of Polish-Jewish stock, admired by Liszt, celebrated then penniless – his Paris students included Hofmann, Landowska and Perlemuter: Melodia appassionata, Opus 81/6 (published 1909). Post-Chopinesque E-minor/major, salon and cavalry spurs, the iron grand on a pedestal, the “artistic madmen” he so abhorred, “Scriabin, Schoenberg, Debussy, Satie”, out of sound and sight. Different from La campanella but as riveting.

Gugnin is an exalted pianist. He puts me in mind of the brilliance, the white-knuckle electricity of Lewenthal, Earl Wild, Ivan Davis, the high-octane emotions of Cziffra, the young Volodos. Award-winning, edge of the seat stuff on Hyperion CDA68310.