Piano Recital: Antti Siirala (Antti Siirala) (Naxos: 8.555997)
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Schubert: Piano Transcriptions
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
One of the great players of his time, the Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky was born in Lithuania in 1870. The first signs of his exceptional musical ability were clear by the age of three and he wrote his first compositions four years later, in 1879 making his first public appearance as a pianist. There followed a series of concerts in Germany and Poland and, in 1884, his first appearance in the United States in Boston. In 1886, hoping to study with Liszt, he returned to Europe, but, learning of the latters death from a newspaper, he travelled, instead, to Paris, with the object of studying with Camille Saint-Saëns, distinguished equally as a pianist and a composer. Saint-Saëns was impressed by Godowskys playing and suggested that he should adopt him, on condition that he changed his name, a proposal that Godowsky rejected. For some three years, however, their relationship continued. The contact was a valuable one and allowed Godowsky to meet leading figures in contemporary musical life. In 1890 he returned to America, where he taught and continued his career as a performer. Ten years later he settled in Berlin, his base for concert tours throughout Europe and the Near East. In 1909 he moved to Vienna to direct the piano master-class at the Akademie der Tonkunst. There were American tours between 1912 and 1914 and with the outbreak of war Godowsky settled again in the United States, giving concerts and clarifying his innovative theories of keyboard technique in a series of editions and publications. At the same time he continued to write music of his own for the piano. He gave his last concert in the United States in 1922, but continued to tour throughout the world, acknowledged as one of the leading virtuosi of his time. His career as a performer was curtailed by a stroke in 1930, and until his death in 1938 he was unable to play. He now increasingly pinned his hopes for a lasting place in the history of music on his compositions and transcriptions for the piano, an ambition largely unrealised. Following tradition, Godowsky included in his repertoire transcriptions of varying degrees of elaboration. Gute Nacht (Good night) is a transcription of the first song of Winterreise, setting the sombre tone of the work, as the protagonist departs in the night, leaving his beloved to sleep. The song is presented first in simple form, gradually further elaborated, as further elements are added, without destroying the prevailing mood. Morgengruss (Morning greeting) is from the earlier Schubert cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Maid of the Mill) and is treated with greater elaboration. The young miller greets his masters daughter, who turns her head away. The last work by Godowsky here included is of another kind, an original composition rather than a transcription, a Passacaglia based on the first eight bars of Schuberts Unfinished Symphony. Written in 1928 to mark the hundredth anniversary of Schuberts death, the Passacaglia consists of 44 variations, a cadenza and a fugue, a work calling for supreme virtuosity in performance.
Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, Franz Liszt had early lessons with Czerny in Vienna. From there he moved to Paris, where he was able to impress audiences by his performance, embarking on a series of concert tours. His interest in supremely virtuoso performance was renewed in 1830 when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate. The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. After years of travel, in 1848 he settled in Weimar, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions. This marked the end of Liszts career as a travelling virtuoso, although he lost nothing of his phenomenal ability as a player. In 1861 he moved to Rome, in the following years dividing his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth. The present transcriptions of songs by Schubert include Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree), almost a folk-song, so well known is it, as familiar to children as it was to Thomas Manns hero on the battlefield in The Magic Mountain. Liszt creates from this song a work of some complexity, capturing its mood of nostalgia. It is one of a dozen songs from Winterreise written in 1839, including Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) and Im Dorfe (In the Village), the former used to frame the latter. Liszt had a keen appreciation of literature and an acute awareness of the mood of the words of the songs he transcribed. The storm is followed by the introspection of the lonely traveller in the night, as the villagers sleep, only to return in all its original fury. Erlkönig (The Erlking) is one of the best known of Schuberts songs. Liszt captures the terror of the night journey, as the father rides through the forest, his dying child lured by the enticements of the mysterious Erlking.
Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, in 1866, the only child of musical parents. His father was a virtuoso clarinettist, while his mother, who came from Trieste, was a pianist of German ancestry. Busonis early concert career as a pianist of phenomenal ability took him to Vienna, where he soon made an impression by his ability as a pianist, composer and improviser and was able to benefit from the rich cultural life that the city offered. Here he heard and himself played to Liszt, met Brahms and Anton Rubinstein, and enjoyed the friendship of Karl Goldmark. On the advice of Brahms he moved in 1886 to Berlin to benefit from the teaching of Carl Reinecke, and from there he moved for a time to Helsinki Conservatory, where he influenced a new generation of Finnish composers. He continued his career as a pianist, with concert-tours to America and elsewhere, and in 1894 settled in Berlin, his home, except for a period in Switzerland during the war, until his death in 1924. He did much to promote the music of Liszt and to encourage, in concerts that he conducted, contemporary music. In his own performances as a pianist he won wide popularity with audiences. His transcriptions, of Bach in particular, followed the tradition of Liszt, a re-creation of the music on which they were based, with a freedom of interpretation that is only now, once again, reaching audiences. His impressive transcription of Schuberts 1817 Overture in D major, German rather than Italian in style, was made in 1889.
Born in the Ukraine in 1891, Sergey Prokofiev entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1904, continuing his studies as a pianist and composer until 1914. Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure. After the Revolution he was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, before settling in Paris in 1920. Finally, in 1936, he returned to Russia, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first political onslaught on music, falling, as Shostakovich is said to have remarked, like a chicken into the soup. Twelve years later, after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that of Shostakovich and others in explicit official condemnation. He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partial relaxation of official policy on the arts. P