Technical Fireworks, If Nothing Else ...

Canadian pianist Marc–André Hamelin skillfully wrestles down one of the titans of the piano repertoire with his latest double CD recording, The Complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes by Lithuanian composer Leopold Godowsky. Hamelin's discography reflects a dedication to technical brain teasers by Franz Liszt and Max Reger, but even these pale in difference to the virtuosity displayed in these two CDs.

Godowsky was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Feb. 13, 1870, and made his home in Chicago in 1890. He retains a noted place in the annals of classical music as being the only great keyboard virtuoso in history to be almost completely self-taught. He was befriended by noted French composer Camille Saint-Saens. Godowsky's 54 studies use thematic ideas from Chopin and transform them into works that seem at times to put fingers into knots.

Few pianists have attempted a complete recording of the collected works, and for good reason. The works by Chopin are technically challenging enough, and further variations seemingly add insult to injury. In fact, noted critic Harold Schonberg called them "probably the most impossibly difficult things ever written for piano." The difficulty is evident from the start of the CD, and especially in the Opus 10 No. 2, "Ignis Fatuus" (RealAudio excerpt). The piece exhibits multi-level counterpoint and thick texture, balanced by hushed tones and well-designed lilts.

The piece is not all technical bravura, as the Opus 10 No. 7, "Nocturne" in G Flat Major will attest to (RealAudio excerpt). The piece is slightly more lyrical, still filled with complex texture that follows Chopins' original ebb and flow of dynamics and contour. Also, Godowsky skillfully incorporates Chopin's flair for the dance with the Opus 25 No. 2, "Waltz" (RealAudio excerpt).