Chopin & Godowsky

350px-Chopin_OpProgramme: Chopin & Godowsky

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN 24 Preludes, Op. 28
1. Agitato – C major
2. Lento – A minor
3. Vivace – G major
4. Largo – E minor
5. Molto allegro – D major
6. Lento assai – B minor
7. Andantino – A major
8. Molto agitato – F-sharp minor
9. Largo – E major
10. Molto allegro – C-sharp minor
11. Vivace – B major
12. Presto – G-sharp minor
13. Lento – F-sharp major
14. Allegro – E-flat minor
15. Sostenuto – D-flat major (“Raindrop Prelude”)
16. Presto con fuoco– B-flat minor
17. Allegretto – A-flat major
18. Molto allegro – F minor
19. Vivace – E-flat major
20. Largo – C minor
21. Cantabile – B-flat major
22. Molto agitato – G minor
23. Moderato – F major
24. Allegro appassionato – D minorLEOPOLD GODOWSKY 12 Studies on Chopin’s Études, Op. 10
1. (Op. 10 No. 1) in C major – Allegro maestoso
4. (Op. 10 No. 2) in A minor “Ignis Fatuus” – Allegro
5. (Op. 10 No. 3) in D-flat major – Lento, ma non troppo – for the left hand alone
6. (Op. 10 No. 4) in C-sharp minor – Presto – for the left hand alone
8. (Op. 10 No. 5) in C major Vivace
13. (Op. 10 No. 6) in G-flat minor – for the left hand alone
14. (Op. 10 No. 7) in C major – Vivace
16. (Op. 10 No. 8) in F major – Allegro risoluto
18. (Op. 10 No. 9) in F minor – Mesto
19. (Op. 10 No. 10) in D major – Allegro moderato
21. (Op. 10 No. 11) in A major – Allegro sostenuto
22. (Op. 10 No. 12) in C-sharp minor – Allegro con fuoco – for the left hand alone

The Preludes, Op. 28 (1839), form an extremely dense and varied set of works, possibly the most comprehensive example of the sound-world of Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin (1810–1849). They were inspired by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II (1722 and 1744), and their concept of a journey through the 12 major and minor keys. They boast a unique breadth in terms of character, mood, invention, and melodic and harmonic vocabulary. As in the Bach, Chopin’s Preludes embody the essence of his compositional and keyboard idiom.

The title Preludes was controversial at the time of publication and has remained so, affecting the way they are perceived at an aesthetic level by the cultivated listener. There were precedents, however, and Chopin is virtually certain to have been familiar with them: Clementi’s Preludes and Exercises in all major and minor keys (1821); Hummel’s Examples for the Pianoforte: Preludes in all the 24 Major and Minor Keys, Op. 67; Cramer’s 26 Preludes or short introductions in the major and minor keys for pianoforte (1818); Szymanowska’s Vingt exercices et Préludes, (1819); Wurfel’s Zbior exercycyi w ksztalcie prelusyow ze wszystkich tonow maior i minor (1821); Kalkbrenner’s Vingt-quatre Préludes dans tous les Tons majeurs & mineurs, pouvant servir d’exemple pour apprendre à préludier (1827); and Moscheles’ 50 Préludes ou Introductions dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 73 (1828).

True, Kalkbrenner’s Preludes are not as interestingly innovative as his more mature Études Op. 143, whose Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 17, and 18, are stylistic and instrumental “ancestors,” respectively, of Chopin’s Études Op. 10, No. 3; Op. 25, No. 12; Op. 10, No. 8; Op. 10, No. 9; Op. 25, No. 5; Op. 25, No. 1; and Op. 25, No. 9.

The concept of a brief composition, closely related to the étude genre, that was nevertheless complex in its own right found an ideal advocate in Chopin’s highly original but rigorously self-coherent musical mind. His Preludes are strong evidence of the composer’s genius. So, Schumann’s criticism of them as “strange pieces,” “sketches” and “ruins,” “a wild motley” containing “the morbid, the feverish, the repellent,” sounds rather odd, coming from otherwise so passionate a defender of Chopin’s qualities as a composer. André Gide was unimaginative regarding the title:

…I do not wholly understand the title that Chopin chose to give to these pieces: Preludes. Preludes to what? Each of Bach’s preludes is followed by its fugue; it is an integral part of it.

Such judgments notwithstanding, 20th-century performers have loved playing the set as a whole, a tradition started by Busoni, reinforced by Cortot, and followed by many others. Some modern scholars like Jim Samson find the Preludes “a unified cycle of independent pieces.” Lawrence Kramer however thought that the works were not arranged on “the basis of any dramatic or expressive logic,” a view shared by Jeffrey Kresky, who found no motivic recurrences across the works. Kresky’s analytical approach is self-evidently modernistic, based on the visual look of the score; in fact, he notes exceptions to his own view in the supposed motivic connection between the prominent E-D of No. 1, the opening motive of No. 2 (obviously amended from the lower B), and the descending second that characterizes the motivic idée fixe of No. 4.

Like so many great piano compositions of the high Romantic era, and also on account of their aphoristic nature, Chopin’s Preludes lend themselves to analytical dissections that are far removed from the deliberate compositional aims of the composer. This also happened to Schumann and Brahms, for example, where the felt need for constant motivic elaboration (“Thematische Arbeit”), in line with Bach’s strong sense of motivic self-coherence, was much more of an expressive, even sentimental nature, rather than one of pure musical structuralism (the latter being a dogma of modern compositional procedure).

The semitone interval (the most commonly found motivic link between the Preludes) is a strong motivic bond (albeit not an explicit one) also in e.g. Rachmaninov’s 13 Preludes Op. 32, though there it is certainly not one that by itself justifies laying them for aesthetic reasons as a set. Rather, as is the case with both sets of Debussy’s Préludes, the listener feels with Chopin’s Preludes that these aggregates of shorter compositions, when heard together, are powerful examples of the composer’s compositional and instrumental idiom, compressed into a relatively short but intense time-span. Coincidentally these sets lend themselves to making a perfect half of a recital program.

Hearing Chopin’s Preludes next to 12 of the Studies on Chopin’s Études (1893–1914) by Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) provides a rare insight, suggesting how Chopin’s music might have developed, had he sought to combine, as Godowsky said of his own intentions, “Chopin’s sonority with Bach’s polyphony.” Just as Chopin’s music can hardly get denser, stylistically, than in the 24 Preludes, its hypothetical development can scarcely get any more complex or challenging pianistically than in the notorious Godowsky Studies, which have been selected in this program to provide a version by Godowsky for each of the 12 original Études, Op. 10 by Chopin.

Godowsky’s drastic elaborations are often dismissed as tampering of the worst sort. But it is precisely the archetypal nature of Chopin’s Études, familiar to the ears and fingers of every pianist and piano composer, that allows Godowsky to create a monument to their greatness without at the same time crushing them under its weight.

One always wonders if Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 1 has a “theme.” Some performers tend to bring out the bass line, but this is little more than a ground, not a theme. There is, however, a rudimentary melodic line (or “melos”) implicit in the voicing of the Étude’s arpeggiated chords. This is the very thing that Godowsky chooses to emphasize in Study 1, with cavernous two-handed chords in the lower register that drive arpeggios across the entire keyboard.

Study 4 re-works the chromatic scalar material of Op. 10, No. 2 into 4:3 polyrhythms. The Study’s subtitle (“Ignis fatuus”) underscores a connection with Liszt’s “Feux Follets” (will-o’-the-wisps), a work that projects its chromaticism in a similar, though more homophonic way.

Study 5, on Chopin’s Op. 10, No.3, justifies Godowsky’s view that the left hand is in every way equal and in some ways superior to the right hand. He judged that in its application to piano playing the left hand had many advantages over the right, and it would suffice to mention only a few of these to convince the student that it is a fallacy to deem the left hand less amenable to training than the right.

The left hand is favored by nature in having the stronger part of the hand for the upper voice of all double notes and chords, and also by generally having the strongest fingers for the stronger parts of a melody. In addition, … the left hand, commanding as it does the lower half of the keyboard, has the incontestable advantage of enabling the player to produce with less effort and more plasticity a fuller and mellower tone, superior in quantity and quality to that of the right hand.
—(Leopold Godowsky: Special remarks on the studies for left hand alone from the introduction to his Studies on Chopin’s Études).

Study 6 on Op. 10, No. 4 is a left-hand transcription; Godowsky aims to maintain the Étude’s toccata-like character but at the same time extrapolates several subsidiary melodic lines (which are added to the inner structure of the inherent polyphony). His methods are apparent in the very first measures: in the subtle treatment of the descending 16th-note incipit. Achieving textural completeness with a single hand demands highly complex writing, designed to expose and clarify each and every melodic and contrapuntal aspect of the piece. As with his left-hand transcription of the “Revolutionary” Étude, Godowsky adds new voices to the motoric passages. This gives the Study added weight and contrasts it with Op. 10, No. 4, which is traditionally performed as a brisk, light, forward-moving, two-part Toccata.

Study 13 on Op. 10, No. 6 is a true masterpiece that achieves several compositional and poetic goals. It elaborates the semi-tonal inflection of the Étude’s original accompaniment, developing a massive web of sonorities from this. The resulting polyphony from the texture of the accompaniment is scarcely conceivable for a single hand.

Godowsky adds new melodic lines that are ideal companions to Chopin’s primary thematic material. Some listeners will recognize Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand as the Study’s pianistic if not stylistic ancestor.

No. 14 is a Toccata, in a very faithful transcription which works 2-1 finger-repetitions.

In Study 16, on Op. 10, No. 8, Godowsky systematically transfers musical materials from one hand to the other, creating technical hurdles of the utmost difficulty. Study 16 features intertwined passagework for both hands. The upward- and downward-arpeggiated figurations over a horn-like melody are reminiscent of similar horn melodies in Chopin’s Concertos. The original passagework is articulated and accented in a way that forces the performer to abandon superficial fluency in favor of accurate metric and harmonic subdivisions. This fact, combined with the presence of subsidiary figurations and reiterated thematic material, creates textures of maximum richness.

Study 18 on Op. 10, No. 9 imports and adapts the right-hand figurations of Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 2, with staggering results.

Study 19 on Op. 10, No. 10 is a miraculous explosion of creativity. Its form is variational all the while suggested by the structure of the Étude, which moves its primary material through several keys, almost repeating itself. Godowsky elaborates on this aspect of the original text, magnifying each quasi-repetition into a full-fledged variation.

In Study 22 on Op. 10, No. 12 the famous thematic features of the well-known “Revolutionary” Étude are left unaffected, and are supplemented with polyphonic activity not present in the original. The result is a work that is a mix of transcription, lefthand arrangement, and elaboration. The accompanying passagework is infused with strands of melodic material (hidden or implicit in the original), thereby adding even more pathos to the already turbulent Étude.


Carlo Grante – Godowsky  Etude No. 8 live

Carlo Grante – Godowsky Etude No. 18 live

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