Twenty years ago pianist Konstantin Scherbakov embarked on a project to record the complete Godowsky piano works
Twenty years ago – in 1995 – I signed a contract with Naxos (“Marco Polo” – the rarity label) saying I would record the complete piano works of Leopold Godowsky. The original plan was slightly different to what actually happened, as I was asked to record the first four CDs in eight days (two full recording days per CD) and consequently the whole collection within four years! My musical curiosity and enthusiasm was the driving force behind this project. However, the schedule was rather over-ambitious and perhaps not surprisingly it did not end up happening as planned.
I survived the first eight days of recording sessions in San Francisco in 1995, however due to unacceptable settings at the recording studio, these recordings were never released. It was only at this point that the real work began! Each work had to be studied from scratch, with only little opportunity for an eventual performance on stage. It became clear that the project would take a long time, however it was important for me to make it properly.
The name of Leopold Godowsky was known to me as one of the greatest pianists of the Golden Age, but 20 years ago I was little aware of his status as such a prolific composer who wrote not only transcriptions and arrangements, but also his own, sometimes extremely interesting and highly original music. My friend Ludwig Madlener (who later translated the only monographic book on Leopold Godowsky by Jeremy Nicholas into German) first introduced me to Godowsky’s music in full – he gave me the scores of Godowsky’s arrangements of Chopin Studies, and he later supplied me with all Godowsky’s piano music scores.
Godowsky’s own original compositions often lack substantial musical ideas and as such they do not require a complexity of language; however, his writing style being quite revolutionary, it requires a lot of brainpower from the player as well as constant consideration of the rules of the mechanics of piano playing. That is why Godowsky’s arrangements of pieces by other composers have become the core of his compositional output – this is where his unique philosophy of piano playing allowed him to explore new ways of writing for the piano and where his genius ideas were fully realized. The composer is focused here on co-existence of possibly many strands, to make different voices live independently of each other – the piano being an ideal instrument for that, uniquely capable of recreating the polyphonic illusion.
2015 marks the release of the 13th instalment of my 15-CD Godowsky series, a disc featuring some transcriptions as well as a few original works. The project, which is going to cover over 16 hours of music in total, clearly required a structure. I arranged the works in such a way that each CD would have a particular theme: for instance, one disc dedicated to Schubert, the other – to a Waltz etc; many of Godowsky’s cycles neatly fill the duration of exactly one CD. All that remains now is a set of two CDs featuring Godowsky’s arrangements of Chopin’s Etudes. These are set to be recorded as soon as I finish learning them. These studies are often said to be the most difficult piano works ever written – a statement which I do not support. All of Godowsky’s works require a lot of time to study and may seem daunting at first, however – once mastered – they become easy and pleasant to play. After all, nothing is impossible on the piano.
The past 20 years in the studio have not only been for me all about Godowsky. In the meantime I have also recorded the complete Shostakovich and Respighi piano works, complete concerto works by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Medtner, Respighi and Scriabin, and countless other recording projects including the complete Beethoven symphonies as transcribed by Liszt. The next plans are already looming on the horizon. After completing the Godowsky project, I would like to record the complete Nocturnes by Chopin, and continue performing the cycle of complete Beethoven sonatas and symphonies.