Leopold Godowsky
54 Studies on Chopin’s Études

Media Review / Listening Diary 2013-06-28

2013-06-28 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-09 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-13 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

Godowsky’s 54 Studies on Chopin’s Études

The CDs

Carlo Grante

Godowsky: Chopin Studies, Grante, CD cover

Godowsky: Studies on the Chopin Études

Carlo Grante

Music & Arts CD-1093 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 2001

Godowsky: Chopin Studies, Grante, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Marc-André Hamelin

Godowsky: Chopin Studies, Hamelin, CD cover

Godowsky: The Complete Studies on Chopin’s Études

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67411/2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2000

Godowsky: Chopin Studies, Hamelin, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

How I Learned About Godowsky’s Studies

I read about the Studies (particularly the “Badinage”) on the Chopin Études by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938) many years ago, but never heard any of these (neither in concert nor in a recording, nor even on the radio). These pieces remained legend to me — up to one of my last visits to a CD shop in Zurich (when these still existed). I recognized the label “Godowsky”, started flipping the few CDs there — and purchased Carlo Grante‘s recording of all 54 Chopin Studies.

Comparing with Chopin’s Originals

Back home, I then compared these Studies with Chopin’s originals (my comparison CD was Vladimir Ashkenazy‘s recording from 1975. It’s maybe not exactly a reference recording, but certainly good enough to get an idea on how Godowsky used Chopin’s compositions in his studies). Yet, in that first set of auditions I was not really able to assess the value of Godowsky’s studies as compositions (rather than merely as artistic exercise).

I now think that listening to the original Chopin Études along with Godowsky’s Studies makes limited sense. The Studies are mostly very different in style & character, and with many of the Studies a direct comparison makes little, if any sense. In instances where Godowsky just uses the harmonic framework, or maybe a single voice from the original, it may help establishing a “mental relationship” between the original and the “transcription”.

In most cases, though, the originals will be present enough in memory, even if you are not a pianist, such that there’s no gain in a direct confrontation. To the contrary: when confronted with Godowsky’s intricate, polyrhythmic, polyphonic, “over-ornamented” Studies, Chopin’s originals (to me) sound almost simplistic. They inevitably lose, while by themselves they are definitely a very impressive set of pieces — and masterworks, for sure!

My advice: if you need to refresh your memory about the Chopin Études, listen to them first, then only turn to Godowsky (maybe even separated by a couple of days?).

Recordings with Marc-André Hamelin in my Collection

Soon after the above, initial Godowsky purchase I started collecting a couple of CDs with Marc-André Hamelin, such as

19th Century Romantics

  • 3 separate CDs with works by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888): somewhat weird (at least very unusual), but still very interesting piano music, very virtuosic
    Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 16794 7 / 0 34571 17218 7 / 0 34571 17569 0
  • A CD with works by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Apparitions S.155, Études de Concert S.144/145, Hungarian Rhapsodies Nr.2/10/13, Nuages gris S.199, Nocturne S.207, Réminiscences de Don Juan S.418 — I really like that recording, which is a live concert recording from Wigmore Hall in London, on 1996-01-14.
    Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 16874 6

Late and Post Romantics

  • 4 CDs with piano music by Nikolai Medtner (1880 – 1951) — interesting music, good recording!Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 17221 7
  • A CD with piano works by Max Reger (1873 – 1916): Humoresken op.20, Variations opp.81 & 134 — I like Max Reger’s music, the interpretation is impeccable, I like this recording!
    Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 16996 5
  • 2 CDs with the 10 Sonatas by Alexander Scriabin, (1872 – 1915) — very well-played: in my opinion it beats the recordings by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Zarafiants, and Bernd Glemser: the latter two have some highlights, but on average, I think Hamelin clearly beats these artists
    Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 17131 9 (iTunes download)
  • The above recording with the Étude-Studies by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938), see below for comments

20th Century Piano Virtuoso Music

  • A CD with the 36 Variations by Frederic Rzewski (*1938) — I bought that because the CD came out as best in a radio comparison. In the aftermath I don’t think this acquisition was worth it — not because of Hamelin (his interpretation is once more impeccable), but because I don’t rate the music very high
    Hyperion — UPC-A: 0 34571 17077 0

Those recordings were not selected randomly, but after listening through the Medtner and Reger CDs I realized the strengths of Marc-André Hamelin as an ideal artist for highly virtuosic, romantic and post-romantic works for piano solo. These Godowsky studies are an excellent example for this!

Chopin’s Original Études

The Études op.10 and op.25 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) are — as mentioned — truly brilliant masterpieces. But they are also definitely — studies: each of them is focusing on one particular technical aspect, such as rapid scales and broken chords, parallel passages, etc., but also legato playing, complex, rapid figurations in one hand, with calm, uniform accompaniment in the other. From a musical point-of-view, the individual Étude may be relatively simple (despite their enormous technical demands!). A pianist would rarely perform just one or two, I think (excepting encores, of course), but rather one complete cycle (op.10 or op.25). This then presents a “complete little universe”, not just of techniques, but also in terms of tempo, character / moods, etc.

For recommendations for Chopin‘s original version see also my separate posting covering op.25: my personal favorite is Grigory Sokolov (recorded live in Saint Petersburg, 1995). For the complete Études opp.10 & 25 I have Maurizio Pollini‘s recording (1972). I also have Vladimir Ashkenazy‘s complete Études opp.10 & 25 (1975) — but to me this doesn’t come close to the other two just mentioned (plus, here the Études are oddly recorded in pairs, 2 per track). Sokolov did not record op.10 (as far as I know), but I also find Pollini’s complete recording excellent. It was made at a time when he was at the height of his technical abilities.

What Godowsky Did with Chopin’s Études

On to Godowsky — but just as a really limited comment! While working with the Chopin Études as a pianist, Godowsky at some point tried (a variation / section of) an Étude just with the left hand, in order to train a specific technical issue with that hand (as musicians would often play single voices in order to get the fingers to play it regularly, or in perfection the way the artists wants). It then occurred to him that for single hand playing the left hand is better suited than the right hand: with the left hand, the “strong” fingers would typically be playing the melody, whereas with the right hand the melody would often fall onto the “weak” fingers.

Training the Left Hand

At this point, he started cultivating left-hand playing, and composing for the left hand alone (so, unlike with Ravel’s piano concert for the left hand, these compositions were not created for a pianist who had lost his right hand). The resulting 22 Studies for the left hand alone were then complemented 32 additional ones for both hands, covering all Chopin Études except for op.25/7. Four of these Studies are based on Chopin’s Nouvelles Études Nr.1 – 3 (F minor, A♭ major, D♭ major). Some of Chopin’s Études served as material for up to 5 entirely different studies.

Multiple Études in one Study

The last two of the Studies are very special: here, Godowsky took two Études in parallel:

  • Study Nr.47 in G♭ major, “Badinage”, uses op.10/5 + op.25/9, and
  • Study Nr.48 in F major, is based upon op.10/11 + op.25/3

Godowsky apparently even had plans for a “Triple-Study” that would be based on three of Chopin’s Études. But this plan did not materialize. As one can gather from the above two “double Studies” and the 22 Studies for the left hand alone, Godowsky’s aim was to advance his technique (and the technique of playing the piano in general). So, all of these Studies are filled with almost unimaginable difficulties and intricacies, in their polyrhythmic and polyphonic structure. With some of the Studies for the left hand alone one can — without seeing the pianist — hardly imagine how a pianist with two hands can possibly play this, and consequently, with some of the Studies for two hands, one tends to think that there are two pianists, or at least three hands playing!

How Do Godowsky’s Studies Sound?

Before briefly talking about the two interpretations at hand, let me add a word on how that music sounds to me. In a way, Chopin’s Études (to me) are early romantic / late classical compositions (there are also slow, meditative Études which are definitely romantic), with a wide range of expressions across the sets of Études. One can very well listen to one complete set of Études in a row — a fascinating experience!

Godowsky, on the other hand, turns all of Chopin’s Études into late romantic pieces, definitely much more uniform in terms of expression. Playing all of these in a single concert is unimaginable (besides the astronomic technical and physical challenge for the pianist!), and even just a subset set of, say, 12 Studies is probably hardly ever done in the same concert. Many listeners would probably find this boring, “all the same”, etc.

But that is hypothetical anyway, because there are only a handful pianists worldwide playing these studies in concert. One thing that may make these pieces tiring is that each of them is so “filled with notes”. Godowski goes to extremes in avoiding “unused fingers” by adding extra voices, chords, etc., to a degree that often makes it hard to hear the parts (voices, harmonies) that are taken from Chopin’s Études. I think it pays to listen into these pieces carefully (and not too much at a time). With superficial hearing this easily ends up as background music that may get boring after a while.

Comparing the two interpretations:

Carlo Grante (*1960)

Grante recorded these Studies in January 2000. His playing is virtuosic, transparent, clear. In a way, he apparently wants to expose the complexity of these Studies (and/or his own virtuosity?), he is (appears to be) playing all notes, and he brings out some nice details. Just to pick an easy example: in the very first study, the parallel “inner” scales in the second part of the study. His playing is certainly correct, and one learns to appreciate the complexity and the difficulty in playing these pieces. And yes, it often sounds like two pianos or at least like piano with four hands, as mentioned above.

However, in the end, the impression I get from these tracks is one of a set of “very advanced Études”, complex, difficult artistic exercises. I get the impression that the artist wants to demonstrate exactly that (and his technical abilities). When he occasionally slows down, is that for technical reasons, or in order to expose / clarify the internal structure of these passages? I see no musical reason for this, and to me this does not fall under rubato. The interpretation often sounds a bit dry, not really engaging. There are some tempo variations (ritardandi, etc.), but I’m missing the “agogic breath” (or play, if you want).

Total duration: 159’02”

What’s in the Box

The CDs come with a booklet of 32 pages in English. Unfortunately there is a mix-up in the page order (and no page numbering), not really a highlight in the art of publishing (also in terms of layout, readability / font selection / print quality). I have decided to scan the text content (except for the track listing), and to make this available as PDF. The content of the booklet:

Marc-André Hamelin (*1961)

Hamelin recorded these Studies 1998 – 1999, a year before Grante. This now is an entirely different interpretation. While Grante takes these Studies as “enhancements” to Chopin’s originals, and still as Études, Hamelin plays them as highly (late) romantic piano music — music, not exercises! Hamelin does not try to expose sheer virtuosity — even though I rate hist art as clearly a level above Grante’s. His playing is more legato, possibly using more sustain pedal, softer, overall, often light.

This way, it does not sound virtuosic — just like 2 or more pianists playing together. In the Studies for the left hand alone it appears unimaginable that this can possibly be just 5 fingers on the same hand, and one would wish one could see this. Well, of course, one can, in concert. There is even an excellent quality YouTube video with Hamelin playing 5 of these Studies (thanks to Karen for providing this link!).

List of Hamelin’s Interpretations in the YouTube Video:

Here’s the list of Studies played, with starting times and durations:

  • Study #45 in E, after the Nouvelle Étude Nr.2 in A♭ (version 1) — starting at 00:04
    duration: 4:10
  • Study #7 in G♭, after op.10/5 (version 1) — starting at 04:14
    duration: 1:44
  • Study #8 in C, after op.10/5 (version 2) — starting at 05:58
    duration: 1:49
  • Study #13 in E♭ minor, after op.10/6, left hand alone — starting at 07:47
    duration: 3:43
  • Study #18 in F minor, after op.10/9 (version 2), imitation of op.25/2 — starting at 11:30
    duration: 2:46

Understanding How Can One Play This?

One would hope that by watching his hand(s) play these Studies one might understand how one can play this, technically. However, watching Hamelin play leaves behind even more amazement! His hands are totally relaxed, one can barely see his fingers moving, erven though the Study for the left hand alone appears to span such ranges, playing melody and a complex accompaniment at the same time, Hamelin rarely appears to stretch his hand. So, one can understand even less how this is humanly possible!

When watching the first piece in that video (Study #45, after the Nouvelle Étude Nr.2), one realizes Hamelin’s (and Godowsky’s) true mastership. It’s simply amazing to see how Hamelin manages to play not only polyrhythmically, but also with independent agogics in the two hands. These hands just slowly appear to sneak across the keyboard. He plays completely “out of the fingers”. It appears as if Hamelin does not need to move his wrists or his forearms (other than to place his fingers, of course). He plays with complete understatement, without show element (if one turns off the sound one may occasionally even get the impression of a bored bar pianist playing his standard evening repertoire!!).

Total duration: 152’27”

What’s in the Box

The CDs come with a booklet of 76 pages (en/fr/de), much more carefully done in the layout (typesetting, etc.) than the one mentioned above, more readable (no hiccups with the page sequence!), more text (smaller font, but easier to read) — much more appealing, overall. The booklet features

  • 2 pages of track listing (table format, easy to read)
  • 2 pages with remarks / notes by Godowsky (some also featured in Grante’s booklet)
  • a 5-page essay on the compositions, by Jeremy Nicholas (author of “Godovsky: The Pianists’ Pianist“, 1989)
  • 16 pages of text by the artist, including detailed remarks on every Study
  • the artist’s biography (1 page).

Comparison Results

Another comparison remark: should you be in a position to compare the two recordings above, better listen to the Grante tracks first, then Hamelin in comparison. This way, you can appreciate the qualities of the Grante recording — and then enjoy Hamelin’s interpretation. The other way around it’s harder to realize how much better Hamelin’s interpretation is. At the same time, Grante’s recording definitely falls off. It may even occasionally sound like a pupil’s playing (“OK, you know how to play all notes. Now you should learn how to make music out of these pieces!”).

I did not reproduce a track listing above or otherwise show a detailed list of all Studies. So, I decided to include a table showing all 54 Studies. Note Godowsky’s rather odd numbering scheme. This is likely caused by the fact that some studies were added after the first batch was already published. I include the track durations in the two recordings discussed here. This permits comparing relative track durations. With only half a dozen exceptions, Hamelin’s tempi are the same or slightly faster than Grante’s, but the differences are not dramatic:

The color coding in the last two columns indicates relative durations. Blue means slower, green means faster. The color depth indicates the deviation from the average duration.

Godowsky: Chopin Studies, table with timing comparison

Other Interpretations

Finally, let me mention a couple extra YouTube videos that I ran into. I do not really want to compare these to the above recordings. It is unfair to compare concert recordings (let alone poor quality ones) to studio recordings on CD. Both of these recordings are with Boris Berezovsky (*1969):

Berezovsky is definitely a pianist with enormous technical abilities. I would characterize his interpretation / style as being somewhere between Grante’s and Hamelin’s. There’s much more of a show element in his playing than in Hamelin’s. Overall, the character of his interpretations is clearly closer to in Hamelin’s rather than Grante’s…

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