Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes, Op. 10
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Studies on Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 10
David Stanhope (piano)
rec. April 2012, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, Australia
TALL POPPIES TP230 [44:34 + 47:15]

David Stanhope bills himself as “an occasional pianist” and came to the instrument after learning to play the French horn and bass trombone. He spends time both conducting and composing, making him a sort of musical Renaissance man. This makes it all the more unfair that in his free time he somehow managed to learn the piano well enough to play Godowsky’s etudes after Chopin, and play them with aplomb. Some people got more than their fair share of talent.

Stanhope is attracted to super-difficult works, like Godowsky’s, and the genre has been his recording focus. Here, he tackles Chopin’s Op. 10 and Godowsky’s variations on those études, presenting each Chopin piece followed by its Godowsky rewrites. The booklet notes explain what’s going on very clearly, but really I suggest you watch Stanhope’s videos on YouTube, where he patiently and wittily explains what’s going on, shows you just how hard the music is to play, and then plays it (link 1 ~~ link 2 ~~ link 3). That first link is especially rewarding: it may change entirely how you think about a very famous etude.

You might object to the short playing time of the two CDs (45 minutes and 47 minutes), but this turns out to be just right. 45 minutes is the exact amount of time my brain can go listening to such taxing piano showpieces before wanting to hear something else. The shorter first disc, especially, is welcome because by the end, you’ve just heard Godowsky’s seven versions of the “Black Keys” etude.

It’s a lot of fun to read the booklet as you listen along, but it’s still fun to just listen. David Stanhope is a formidable virtuoso. Generally he does not show the strain or herculean effort you’d expect ... and when he does sound stressed, can you blame him? Without use of the booklet, I’m honestly not sure if I could tell which etudes are written for the left hand alone. Godowsky’s bag of tricks is deep, and Stanhope’s ability to cope is seemingly bottomless.

I don’t know Marc-André Hamelin’s recordings well enough to compare the performers in detail, but the recorded sound for this Stanhope set has more colour and pop. Stanhope’s playing style, too, is less clinical than Hamelin’s.

Stanhope’s booklet notes are personable and honest about the music and its challenges. He does an admirable job explaining the technical feats, and he leaves his email address if you have any questions. If you like this repertoire you should get this album. If you’re not certain or worried about overdosing on piano, do try one or two of the excellent YouTube videos.

Brian Reinhart