Perhaps more than with any other Romantic pianist-composer, the recordings of Leopold Godowsky may seem to fall short of our expectations.
The difficulty of his piano music is legendary, and some of it requires not only a phenomenal technique but the most extraverted musical personality imaginable; yet his own performances are characterized by fastidious understatement. Godowsky the composer was capable of the insouciant flamboyance of his metamorphoses on “Fledermaus” themes, or the diabolically clever “Badinage,” his combination of Chopin’s two G-flat Etudes. Compared with this mental image, Godowsky the performer can seem pedantic, more concerned with correct declamation of the musical line than with poetry or expressive freedom.
That’s flip and unfair, of course. Godowsky’s recordings contain moments of great beauty, and a few are among the recorded repertoire’s treasures. But Godowsky undoubtedly suffers from our preconception of what we wish his playing to be.
Even during his lifetime, many critics and audience members expected Godowsky the performer to be something he was not. Damning with faint praise was common in reviews: “Passion and eloquence are not the distinguishing features of Mr. Godowsky’s playing, even at its best,” wrote a New York Times critic in 1914, even as he praised Godowsky’s “beautifully polished style that had an inner warmth.”1 The following year, the Times, while noting the “elegance, the perfect finish, the consummate ease of his technique,” wrote that Godowsky’s mastery “does not extend to all, nor even to the most vital and fundamental things, in musical art.”2
Perhaps Godowsky had difficulty letting go in front of an audience; in the recording studio, his discomfort was almost palpable. While some of his issued performances are first or second takes, many others required take after take. In one 1928 session, 24 separate takes of seven different Chopin Nocturnes yielded only a single publishable side, a half of a nocturne! Even a trifle such as MacDowell’s “Hexentanz” needed at least nine takes during his acoustic sessions. And Godowsky’s performing career came to a macabre end when he suffered a stroke during a 1930 recording session.
Godowsky’s recording experience may have been extreme, but the syndrome is common; Charles Rosen has called it “microphone fright.” In “Piano Notes” Rosen articulates the different psychological realities of the concert hall and the recording studio: “In a concert, an effect that does not quite come off matters very little if the whole performance has vitality. In a recording, however, a slight slip of memory, a wrong note grazed are an irritant.”3 They become “an obstacle to the attempt to forget our own concerns and let the music take over our consciousness.”4 Passages that were easy to play become increasingly difficult, sapping the pianist’s confidence. The syndrome was surely even more serious in the 78 rpm era, when splicing was impossible.
Considering this, Godowsky’s dogged determination in the recording studio inspires awe. There are at least 51 published acoustic 78 rpm sides by Godowsky, a number equal to Hofmann’s published output and exceeded only by those of Paderewski, Mark Hambourg and the irrepressible Alfred Grünfeld. (Though Grünfeld recorded about a hundred sides, many are remakes.) In addition, there are many surviving alternative takes, almost doubling the number of Godowsky’s known acoustic recordings.
The result is a rich but decidedly narrow picture of Godowsky the pianist. Except for a single Beethoven sonata and four short works by Debussy, Godowsky’s recorded repertoire consists entirely of Romantic music, although the critic James Huneker wrote glowingly of Godowsky’s Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. All of Godowsky’s records are solos. There are no concertos, such as the Brahms and Tchaikovsky first concertos that contributed to his astounding success in Berlin; and there is no chamber music, such as the five Beethoven cello sonatas that he performed on a single evening with Jean Gerardy, or the Franck sonata, which he performed with Ysaÿe and other violinists to great acclaim.
Even the solos are heavily skewed towards pieces that would fit on a single 78 rpm side, plus a surprising number of single-sided abridgments. It must have pained Godowsky to have to incise abridged versions of Chopin’s Op. 31 Scherzo, Op. 47 Ballade, and Op. 53 Polonaise for Brunswick at a time when other record companies were issuing complete versions by other pianists. It wasn’t until 1929 that Godowsky recorded any of the larger works that made up the bulk of his vast solo repertoire. There are only a handful of his own compositions and transcriptions, and none of his Studies on the Chopin Etudes, which some pianists would pay dearly to hear. And it almost goes without saying of a pianist whose career ended before the heyday of radio that we have no transcriptions of live performances, which can reveal new facets of a musician’s personality.
As a final insult–though these minimally filtered transfers reveal more of Godowsky’s subtlety than ever before–few pianists were hampered so much by the inherent limitations of acoustical recording. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Godowsky’s records are better than they sound.
For instance, the 1928—1930 electrical discs (on the forthcoming Volume 3) disclose artful pedaling that often wreathed his playing in a halo of harmonics; on the acoustic records, some of that sound lay above the audible frequency range. The acoustic horn also compressed Godowsky’s sound, which according to several sources was already relatively small. For instance, in Chopin’s Op. 42 Waltz (CD 2, Track 9), the subito piano (heightened by a split right hand) at the phrase’s peak in bar 150 (2:02) surely was more dramatic than it sounds on his Brunswick recording.
With so many qualifications of, and gaps in, Godowsky’s recorded output, one might reasonably ask, why bother with his records at all? The answer is simple, for in spite of everything, these discs reveal a remarkable musical mind allied to an Olympian technique. Godowsky is also a transitional figure of great historical importance, a fundamentally Romantic interpreter whose conceptions were informed by a strong scholarly impulse more typical of modern pianists.
Even for a Romantic, Godowsky’s tempos were fluid. The most extreme example may be the first movement of Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata in the forthcoming third volume, where the tempo is almost continually changing, an approach that both creates and resolves interpretive challenges.
The Chopin Berceuse (CD 1, Track 20) is treated almost as radically as that sonata. Most pianists take a relatively strict tempo through this enchanting series of mini-variations, but Godowsky unfolds a miniaturized, gentle narrative. Not only are many phrases clearly marked, usually with a closing ritard preceding a sudden resumption of tempo; the whole structure is governed by increasing extremes, as tempos get both faster and slower. We get a hint of his plan at the very beginning, when the introductory tempo (eighth-note = 83 beats per minute) is perceptibly slower than the tempo of bars three and four (eighth note = 99). The general rule is, the shorter the note-values, the faster the tempo: Godowsky speeds up to approximately 111 beats per minute when 16th -notes arrive in bar 13 (:46); to 120 at the 64th -notes in bars 19 and 20 (1:07); and to 128 beats per minute for the 64th-note triplets in bars 39-40 (2:19). This heightening of note values is a common Romantic interpretive device, but it’s rarely used with such clear structural intent.
The trend then reverses. Godowsky slows to about 65 beats per minute in bar 44 (2:34). (Slowing in this bar is very common among earlier pianists, and especially dramatic in the recordings by Michalowski, Koczalski, and Rosenthal–all students of Karol Mikuli, suggesting that the practice may have originated with Mikuli’s teacher Chopin.) The last half of bar 46 (2:47) slows even more, to about 44 beats per minute. In this case Godowsky isn’t calling our attention to longer note values, but preparing us for their arrival in bar 47 (2:50). He marks this arrival, which serves as a recapitulation psychologically though not thematically, with a slower basic tempo than the beginning: 75 beats per minute to start with, then fluctuating between 86 and 99 beats per minute. When the theme, or what there is of it, finally returns in bar 63 (3:54), Godowsky’s tempo, 91 beats per minute, is slightly slower than in bars three and four. It works with the now-unchanging tonic harmony to give the impression of a curtain coming down on the performance.
Godowsky is not formulaic within this scheme of increasing and decreasing tempo. Some variations are treated individually, such as the beautifully sculpted bars 37-38 (2:12), which contain a convincing accelerando and ritard.
Like all earlier pianists, Godowsky does not always play with his hands together. But he’s more restrained about anticipating the left hand or delaying the right hand than most pianists of his era–in both quantity and quality–and his use of such devices combines Romantic tradition with modern rationality. When there’s an anticipated bass note or a split right hand (as occur, respectively, in Chopin’s Op. 42 Waltz, bars 136 and 138, 3rd beat (1:47 and 1:50), it serves a clear expressive or structural purpose.
Though it sounds unexceptional to modern ears, Godowsky’s Brunswick recording of the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat (CD 1, Track 10) is actually unusual for the simultaneity of the two hands: they are together until the expressive B-flat in bar six (:19). Godowsky may have been rushing over some details in order to fit the piece onto a single side, for his later two-sided electrical recording features some subtle right-hand delays in these bars, but both performances sound chaste and restrained compared to other early recordings of the piece. The corresponding bars in Louis Diémer’s 1904 recording feature the lagging right hand typical of mid-19th-century performance practice; the lagging is present but more restrained in the 1912 recording by Frank La Forge, where the major right-hand delays occur at the melody’s entrance in bar two and at the surprising A-natural in bar five; and Vladimir de Pachmann’s 1916 Columbia recording sounds positively sybaritic compared to Godowsky’s, using four different forms of accent in these bars.
The most arresting moments in Godowsky’s recordings occur when his restrained sense of non-coordination between the hands is combined with his adventuresome sense of tempo. Bars 10 and 11 of the Berceuse (:35) are an object lesson in late Romantic style. The same three-note motif is repeated four times, descending one scale-degree each time over repeating tonic-dominant harmonies. Godowsky gives each repetition a distinct character while binding them together in a coherent phrase of decreasing intensity. The first appearance combines a dynamic accent with a slight lingering on the first two notes, sharply emphasizing the motif’s upbeat character; the second appearance has only a dynamic accent; the third has only an agogic accent; and the fourth, both an agogic slackening of tempo and an expressive split of the right hand’s two notes, subtly emphasizing the dissonant B-flat/E-flat without breaking a melodic line that continues into bar 13.
Godowsky’s romantic roots are also evident in his willingness to alter the text. Occasionally these are virtuoso stunts, such as the doubling of the right hand by the left hand at the end of Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song” (Volume 1), but just as often the alterations are strictly musical. For instance, in the funeral march of the Chopin sonata, he changes the left hand in bar 36 in order to remove the parallel octaves between melody and bass. Chopin’s Waltz, Op.42 contains both types of alterations. In bar 69 (:53), he alters the left hand’s upper voice to give it a three-note chromatic line (E-flat, E, F) that relates the passage to the bass line in bars 10-12. But Godowsky also doubles the right-hand arpeggio in bars 274-276 with the left hand (3:41), a theatrical effect that must have been breathtaking in concert. (The ff dynamic marking does provide some musical justification: Chopin wanted a lot of sound here.)
Like many other Romantic pianists, Godowsky takes more textual liberties with Liszt’s music than with the music of Liszt’s contemporaries. He substantially rewrites the closing bars of “La Leggierezza” (CD 1, Track 15), though he doesn’t go as far as Moiseiwitsch and Paderewski, who tack on Leschetizky’s brief virtuoso coda. “La Leggierezza” demonstrates that Godowsky’s exquisite polish sometimes comes at the expense of musical excitement. Technically, this performance is the equal of any; but it is less electrifying than some (listen to the Moiseiwitsch version: Naxos 8.110669) because the placid perfection of Godowsky’s right hand doesn’t attract our attention. The same is true of the sparkling second section of Chopin’s Op. 42 Waltz (bar 41ff), which sounds bland compared with Hofmann’s and Rosenthal’s interpretations. Hofmann’s famous 1935 recordings (Marston 52004-2) have a subtle but clear emphasis on the dominant preparation versus the tonic resolution. In an unusual reading of the passage, Rosenthal’s 1934 HMV recording (APR 7002) takes the opposite approach: the sharp emphasis on the recurring A-flat chords gives the impression of a whirlwind of activity on top of a basically static foundation. Godowsky emphasizes neither dominant nor tonic, playing the left hand with marvelous smoothness but very little shape, and for this reason alone his approach is less interesting than his peers’, despite the right hand’s elegance.
Thus we confront the ironic element of Godowsky’s recordings: their smooth surface occasionally obscures an extraordinary musical mind. Don’t expect catharsis from these performances; don’t expect to hear fireworks (they’re often present, but disguised). If you seek instead one of the most polished technicians and most brilliant analytical musicians of his time, Godowsky’s recordings do not disappoint.
© Mark Arnest, 2005
1. New York Times, 4 March, 1914, p. 11
2. New York Times, 18 October, 1915, p. 9
3. Rosen, “Piano Notes,” pp. 143—144
4. Rosen, id., p. 144
This is the second of three volumes offering a comprehensive chronological survey of Leopold Godowsky’s disc recordings. Volume one (Marston 52046) contains his earliest discs for American Columbia (1913—1916) as well as his initial group of releases for the Brunswick-Balke-Collander Company (from 1920 to mid-May 1922). The final volume will include all of Godowsky’s electrical discs for Brunswick (1926) and for British Columbia (1928—1930).
All of Godowsky’s Brunswick 78s were recorded in the company’s New York studios: at 16 West 36th Street until April 1924, then at 799 Seventh Avenue. Ward Marston and I believe that Godowsky’s re-recordings of earlier repertoire, which occur in a number of instances, were due to significant improvements in recorded quality that Brunswick was able to achieve between 1920 and 1925, rather than to any insistence on Godowsky’s part.
In both performances of the Chopin-Liszt “My Joys” (CD 1, Tracks 11 and 14), Godowsky transposes the piece upward from Liszt’s G-Flat to G. (This is definitely not a speed deviation in the recording process.) Perhaps he wished to revert to Chopin’s original key of G for this Polish Song, or he may have intended to bracket the transcription more easily with “The Maiden’s Wish” (on the reverse side of the original 78), where Liszt’s key is G Major.
The Lane and Zeckwer pieces (CD 2, Tracks 19 and 22) are found on Godowsky’s rarest 78, the only copy of which has been used for this reissue. In fact, the label of the disc gives only the titles, omitting the composers’ names! Both were minor American composers of the early 20th century. It is not known what attracted Godowsky to these pieces, or what motivated him to record them.
Among Godowsky’s Brunswick releases, a rather large number of alternative takes has survived in the form of test pressings. The majority of these seem to have been rejected on technical or musical grounds. In most instances they represent repeat performances of repertoire that was approved for release. We have endeavored to include as many alternative takes as possible in this series. In the accompanying track listing, the designation “unpublished” refers to items not issued during Godowsky’s lifetime. However, several of these have subsequently appeared on various LPs and/or CDs.
A more detailed biographical sketch of Godowsky, along with a works list and discography, may be found at www.godowsky.com. Another useful website is www.leopoldgodowsky.com, which provides further details on many aspects of his life and career. As of 2005, only one full-scale biography has appeared in print: Godowsky: The Pianists’ Pianist by Jeremy Nicholas (Appian Publications, 1989)
The Complete Leopold Godowsky vol. 2
Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938) was one of the great geniuses in the history of piano, earning the highest esteem as both performer and composer. Virtually self-taught, he concertized all over the world until felled by a stroke during a London recording session in 1930. Godowsky was praised for his effortless technique and the remarkable tonal subtlety of his playing. Godowsky’s recorded legacy extends from 1913 to 1930 and includes discs made for both American and British Columbia as well as for Brunswick. Until now there has been no systematic, comprehensive reissue of his recordings. Marston is proud to announce the second volume of the Complete Godowsky series in three volumes, arranged chronologically by recording date and utilizing the best available original copies. Many items, including test pressings, will appear on CD for the first time.