GODOWSKY Symphonic Metamorphoses PADEREWSKI Variations and Fugue (Nelson Goerner)
Paderewski’s Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat minor have, I think, only made it on to disc once before, a superb account by Jonathan Plowright (Hyperion, 12/07), who coupled it with the earlier A minor Variations and Fugue, and the magnificent Piano Sonata (also in E flat minor). Nelson Goerner’s recent recordings have been of Brahms (as, also, have Plowright’s) and it is only a step away from that world into Paderewski’s, the 20 variations (only one more than two minutes in length) rounded off with a weighty fugue (8'24"). The whole work lasts a technically demanding 29'25". There is very little beyond personal preference to separate this new recording and Plowright’s, the latter opting for a more mellow tone throughout and only the fugue revealing any great difference in tempo choices. And it is choice of repertoire, I suggest, that will ultimately tip you into a purchase of one or the other.
Goerner’s Künstlerleben is among the most atmospheric on disc, certainly not short on technical fluency and drama, and with a welcome clear sense of structure (the first four pages, for example, are here plainly presented as an elaborate preamble before the statement of the first waltz theme in full). As with almost everyone who plays this challenging contrapuntal display, he makes some cuts, unusually the 16 bars between the end of section 4 and the beginning of section 5, less unusually the 46 bars sanctioned by Godowsky after section 5. On the other hand, he includes most of the repeats (not always the case). I love the sense of exultation – pianistic and musical – that he brings to the performance, though Marc-André Hamelin has the edge in his benchmark recording (Hyperion, 9/08), with his astonishingly delicate fioritura passagework and more complete text.
The relatively brief programme ends with Paderewski’s Nocturne (No 4 of his Series de morceaux, Op 16). It remains for me one of the most exquisite piano miniatures from this period (1880s), a piece I cannot imagine anyone who plays the piano not enjoying. The composer recorded it twice, lingering over it longer in 1922 than in 1912. Goerner follows the former, perhaps a little too lovingly. Stephen Hough (Nimbus, 1/89) and Kevin Kenner (Fryderyk Chopin Institute, 10/18) are among those who strive to avoid any overt sentimentality.