written by Ittai Rosenbaum
Running a marathon is a feat; pianist Ivan Ilić has decided to run an ultra-marathon. Chopin’s Etudes for piano are among the most demanding piano works in the classical repertoire; Leopold Godowsky’s reworking of the etudes requires an even more accomplished technique.
Ilić chose the most challenging of Godowsky’s work for his new CD: the twenty two Studies for the left hand alone. The rich and elaborate compositions by Godowsky along with Ilić’s virtuosic performance make the Studies sound as if played by two hands.
Ilić’s interpretation is emotional yet renders all details lucid, with thoughtful timing and an impressive balance between the different layers of the music. It is an admirable achievement, as so much information is communicated by only one hand.
The recording will be a delight for all Romantic piano enthusiasts. But there is a special treat for listeners who are well-acquainted with the original Etudes by Chopin: listening to these versions, one constantly anticipates how Godowsky will handle the immense pianistic challenge with just one hand. This is followed by surprise and awe at his ingenious solutions. The result is remarkable both for Godowsky’s technical and compositional innovations, and for Ilić’s success at executing them convincingly.
When asked about his choice to record this particular opus, Ilić says: “I like to champion music that is still unknown but that is more interesting than most of the ‘forgotten’ piano repertoire. Godowsky is the real thing, a forgotten genius, and the only reason thousands of pianists worldwide are not playing this music yet is because they haven’t been exposed to it and because the scores are so frightening.”
Pianist Ivan Ilić performs Chopin/Godowsky Etude no. 2
The recording brings to mind other eccentric works for the left hand, such as Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand and Johannes Brahms’s re-working of JS Bach’s Chaconne. Ilić considers Godowsky’s music to be more sophisticated:
“The Brahms is lovely, but 95% of it is identical to the original Bach, just played on the piano, an octave down. Innovation-wise it’s not going to win any awards. Regarding the Ravel, I’ve often read that he knew Godowsky’s left handed pieces. But a comparison of the two does not reflect that at all. It is actually disappointing to realize that Ravel learned nothing from Godowsky’s technical innovations from decades earlier.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Ravel is no slouch, and he did come up with several ingenious solutions of his own. Prokofiev, Strauss, Britten, and other composers didn’t learn much from Godowsky either. Their concerti for Paul Wittgenstein were written decades after Godowsky, in some cases, but technically they seem decades behind.”
“One of the problems with rehabilitating Godowsky’s musical reputation is that so many people have denigrated his work for so long. Now that I know the music really well, I have re-read the available articles about his music. I was shocked by the superficiality of the criticism, despite that much of it was written by respected ‘experts’.”
Interestingly, the recording was made in two long sessions, set one year apart, in July 2009 and July 2010. Ilić explains the special nature of the recording and its prolonged conception:
“Imagine that you have a house that you vacuum every day. Every night, before you go to bed, you clean all the windows, you do the dishes. You wax the floors. Eight hours later, you wake up to a filthy house again. You start all over. That’s what it’s like to learn Godowsky’s Studies: infuriating. It is like being trapped in a musical version of ‘Groundhog’s Day’. Every day you make progress, and every day this progress evaporates, because the music is so difficult.”
“For the most part, it’s not awkward or unpleasant to play; on the contrary: the harmonies and voice-leading are gorgeous in slow-motion. But there’s the psychological aspect of feeling like you’re not making progress despite the long hours you put into it. That leads to doubt, a skepticism of your ability to play the works beautifully and at tempo.”
The large gap between the two recording sessions led to an unusual approach. Ilić edited the recordings by himself then listened to the result many times. He allowed the recordings to “age” in his mind.
“It was like decanting a wine. I allowed myself to really get to know part one, so that part two would grow out of that.” The second recording was done in the same hall, with the same piano, with the same tuner, using the same equipment and was held even at the same time of the year. The recording has a noteworthy unity and it is practically impossible to discern differences between the two sessions.
Godowsky’s Studies were previously recorded by pianists Marc Andre-Hamelin and Boris Berezovsky, who were highly praised for their virtuosic treatment of the difficult music.
But Ilić’s rendition is more impassioned, more emotionally involved: “I’ve always been struck by the emotional depth of these Studies. When listening to previous recordings, I’ve never been as emotionally engaged as when I listen to Maria João Pires play Schubert, or Scott Ross playing Scarlatti, or the Takács Quartet playing Bartók. I’ve wanted to create that kind of experience with Godowsky.”
Ilić’s recording differs from previous recordings also in sound quality and timbre, as he chose to emphasize the dark, rich, Romantic elements. Technical aspects of the new recording have had a profound impact on the sound. Much thought was devoted to the design of the sound image through the choice of microphones and their positioning.
It should be noted that there is no added reverb or manipulation of the sound and no ‘mastering’. The sound heard on the CD is pure and natural, the musical equivalent of ‘organic’. Listening to the recording requires a bit of openness, as it lacks the compressed sound and artificial EQ tweaking so commonly utilized by major labels of classical music.
Ilić says: “All of this implies an unusually important role for the balance engineer in my recordings, which I readily acknowledge. I have been fortunate to work with French sound engineer and producer Judith Carpentier-Dupont since 2003.”
“She is one of the most important people in my musical life, even though we only see each other for a handful of days each year. In addition to her brilliant musical mind, she knows just what to say during the recording process to bring out the best in me, without compromising the integrity of my choices.”