Godowsky: Piano Sonata in E minor; Passacaglia

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Sonata in E minor; Passacaglia
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) is one of the magic names from the so-called golden age of pianists, best remembered today for his elaborate Viennese waltz arrangements, his 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes (also recorded by Marc-Andre” Hamelin on Hyperion), and one charming piece in particular, Alt Wien. His Sonata, completed in 1911, and his Passacaglia on the opening bass line of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, are his two largest works. The Sonata, with five movements lasting some 47 minutes, is new to the catalogue. It seems a surprisingly soft-centred, rather wistful work — positively easy listening despite some thick textures and a fugue and funeral march during the finale. On first acquaintance, the thematic ideas seem to lack strong character. Godowsky himself rated the Passacaglia, written 16 years later, more highly and as a catalogue of elaborate keyboard textures, it is certainly enjoyable. Here, too, Hamelin’s playing — hard to judge in the Sonata because there are no other recordings — comes into its own, gracefully making light of all technical obstacles (though Godowsky denied they existed). Again, an underlying melancholy reveals Godowsky’s depressive nature, but comforted by so much sumptuous sound, you needn’t let it get you down. Adrian Jack