Benjamin Godard is one of a handful of composers who, despite a lifetime’s hard work, is essentially remembered for just one work. Even that is known more for its melody, rather than by its name, or that of its composer. His life was unceremoniously cut short by tuberculosis at the age of forty-five but even so his works include some eight operas, five symphonies, two concertos for piano and violin respectively, over a hundred songs, and a wealth of solo piano music. It is his eminently-melodious Berceuse
from the opera Jocelyn
, first performed in Paris in 1888, that remains the composer’s best-known piece for most listeners.
Fortunately Hyperion has gone some way towards redressing this blatant imbalance, with volume 63 in its epic Romantic Piano Concerto
series, which features Godard’s works for piano and orchestra. There are competing versions of the concertos on two Dutton CDs: CDLX7274
and CDLX7291 but coupled with other substantial works by Godard. Otherwise this issue keeps company with Godard's piano trios on MDG
, a recital of the solo piano music on FC Records with Jouni Somero
and Chloe Hanslip's Naxos CD of the violin concertos
Godard was born the son of a businessman in Paris and, as a child-prodigy violinist, trained at the Paris Conservatoire. There he initially studied composition and harmony with Napoléon Henri Reber — who also taught Massenet. Later his violin teacher was the Belgian virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps. Chronologically-speaking, despite his curtailed life, Godard was a contemporary of Grieg and Fauré, and specifically in terms of other contributors to Hyperion’s series: the likes of Ignaz Brüll
, Charles Villiers Stanford
and Xaver Scharwenka
. Much of Godard’s music follows in the earlier traditions of Mendelssohn (1805-1847) and Schumann (1810-1856). His distaste for the bombastic extravagances of Wagner was a reaction no doubt coloured by his loathing of the German’s anti-Semitism, Godard himself being of Jewish extraction. With the later emergence of more pioneering composers, Godard’s conservative idiom meant that his reputation in any case was already fading before his premature demise.
The three works on the present CD, however, clearly exceed the technical scope of his idols, Mendelssohn and Schumann. The often bravura writing for the piano equally looks in the direction of Liszt (1811-1886) and Godard’s compatriot Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor
dates from 1875, and opens with some thirteen sombre bars which contain the motif that sets off the first movement – vigorous and energetic stuff from soloist and orchestra contrasted by a graceful second theme. The ensuing Scherzo
captures the essential nature of the Italian word – a jest or joke – and makes much use of some delightful interplay between the two protagonists. Jeremy Nicholas’s pithy and most-informative sleeve-notes — translated into French and German respectively — suggest that it might easily have become a ‘hit’ in the manner of Litolff’s similar, but much better-known movement from his Concerto Symphonique No. 4
. Equally the filigree writing of Saint-Saëns in his works for piano and orchestra is not far removed here. There is no doubt, though, that Godard knows how to write a good ‘tune’ – perhaps something shared with Massenet, via their mutual teacher. The slow movement is just one of those perfect examples, cast initially as a kind of funeral march in the minor key, before blossoming into an elegy in the major. It culminates in some highly passionate moments before finally subsiding almost to nothing. As so often can happen, the finale doesn’t quite appear to live up to what has gone before, but nevertheless provides a solid conclusion to an overall charming and appealing work.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
is a later composition (1893), written two years before the composer’s death. Like its predecessor it opens with a somewhat mournful version of the first movement’s main theme, but which soon opens out into a broader canvas. This theme returns at the beginning of the finale and eventually rounds the whole work off. Again there is some lovely writing in the slow movement, where Godard likes to take his soloist right down to the bottom B flat on the instrument. The ensuing Scherzo once more hints at the lightness and fleet-of-foot of Mendelssohn’s and Saint-Saëns’s writing in similar movements. The finale is a pianistic tour de force
– a toccata-like movement that concludes with an imposing statement of the work’s main theme, leaving the soloist to round it all off in a blaze of glory amid resounding chromatic octaves.
The Introduction and Allegro
(1880) opens in a pompous manner, seemingly preparing the way for an academically argued section to follow. In fact for all its five minutes or so, Godard keeps his cards close to his chest, and even holds back at the start of the Allegro
proper by interposing a short and spirited preamble from the soloist, with a number of short orchestral interjections. A sudden descending harmonic minor scale from top to bottom from the piano leads into something totally unexpected – as Nicholas describes it, ‘a jaunty, toe-tapping crowd-pleaser’ of a tune, which, he goes on to say, ‘you might not be able to get out of your head for several days’. The main theme, with its off-beat cymbal crashes, also appears to have a definite Eastern-European, almost Klezmer feel to it, somewhat reminiscent of parts of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, Op. 67. It concludes with enough pizazz surely to give the piece at least a well-deserved place in the lighter classical hit-list.
In the now more than sixty volumes of Hyperion’s consistently outstanding Romantic Piano Concerto
series, a few, perhaps might be classed more as novelties from otherwise essentially unknown composers – always entertaining, attractive, often with the all-important big tune in there somewhere, but not overly important in the overall scheme of things.
This CD of Godard’s works for piano and orchestra is, though, considerably more than this. Yes, the pieces are very well constructed, and have all the requisite components above firmly in place but they certainly confirm that Benjamin Godard was far more than just a composer of small-scale salon music. He should now be remembered for all his more significant achievements, rather than for just one short piece of music, as seems to be the case at present.
Over the years it’s become a sine qua non
that each Hyperion volume features excellent performances, first class recordings, and exemplary and most informative packaging. In this respect the current CD doesn’t disappoint one bit. Special mention must go to pianist, Howard Shelley, who not only copes admirably with the bristling technical difficulties of the solo part, but also manages to direct the excellent Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra as well.
Whether or not you’re already familiar with Benjamin Godard, this latest addition to Hyperion’s series is highly enjoyable.
Philip R Buttall
Hyperion Romantic Piano Concertos - review index