“LEOPOLD GODOWSKY, Vol. 8”: Java Suite (Panoramas: Tonal Journeys for the Pianoforte); Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss II No. 3: Wine, Women, and Song – Konstantin Scherbakov, piano – Marco Polo 8.225274, 59:55 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) was one of the most exceptional virtuosos of his time. Living as he did from the tail end of the life of Liszt all the way up to the throes of the Second World War, the influences and musical climate he experienced would have been enough to turn the head of anyone. But he was also a performer first and composer second, the former ended when a stroke felled him and stole around eight years of his life after 1930. From then on he hoped that composition would be the thing, even after a highly successful and lucrative career as a pianist which had taken him all over the world, and would establish his reputation once and for all. Alas, it was not to be.
Godowsky has several problems—great ideas, nice if not memorable tunes, and an inability to know when to quit. He doesn’t establish any long range plan of substance or sustenance for his ideas, and tends to meander, enjoying the abilities of his own pianism to fill in time for want of concepts. On the plus side, few people have ever been able to write music that actually lives up to its programmatic expressiveness and expansion, let alone title—when you hear the pieces in this Java Suite, based on his love and experiences in Indonesia, you will be able to smell the air of whatever locale or situation he is expressing. Fortunately most of these are short so we don’t get bored, a common complaint when hearing Godowsky. Then again, the sameness and repetition that he often explores in Liberace fashion full of filigree and flagrant pianistic fireworks may wow the crowd in person but doesn’t settle in well in a living room for repeated hearings. It’s nice stuff, even entertaining, but it ends there.
Wine, Women, and Song, the noted Strauss waltz, one of a number of such paraphrases he wrote, finds itself in the world of the best virtuoso showpieces. Many are these types of pieces that were designed to showcase an exceptional talent using music that was well-known and loved, and it did take superb artistry to bring them off. Today we sort of grin at this kind of thing, anachronistic to be sure, but also redolent of an age gone by that took this art form very seriously. Konstantin Scherbakov plays very well indeed, and surely would have made Godowsky pleased had he heard him. The acoustic is warm and friendly, the piano tone luscious and crisp. The music, unfortunately, is a little soggy.