Libetta tackles Godowsky’s epic Etudes at Miami Piano Fest Academy

By Lawrence Budmen

Francesco Libetta performed the complete Godowsky Etudes in two programs Saturday in Coral Gables.

Francesco Libetta performed the complete Godowsky Etudes in two programs Saturday in Coral Gables.

In a marathon pair of afternoon and evening concerts Saturday at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables, Francesco Libetta scaled one of the Mount Olympus peaks of the piano repertoire. Leopold Godowsky’s 51 Studies on Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 10 and 12, challenge the outer limits of the pianist’s technique, stamina and musicality. Few artists dare venture even a single one of these keyboard land-mines, even as an encore. Libetta, who has long played some of these works, proved up to test at the matinee performance of the complete Op. 10 collection. 

Godowsky, a famous pianist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conceived a series of vignettes that are frequently witty, imaginative and fiendishly difficult reinventions of Chopin’s original scores. (Many are for the left hand alone.) These are more than exercise pieces for students. Some adhere closely to Chopin’s creations while others only utilize elements of the etudes. Godowsky freely added his own harmony and counterpoint to the originals.  Chopin could hardly have imagined his works as a Tarantella (No. 5) or Toccata (No. 7) but Godowsky’s revisionist explorations  are fascinating and well worth hearing.

Since his earliest appearances at the Miami Piano Festival, Libetta has demonstrated near-flawless technique and a distinctively light touch. 

But these performances, which he played entirely without scores, took him to another level. Even when playing the left-hand pieces, the depth and richness of tone he drew from the piano engulfed the intimate performance space. Every note and run emerged perfectly articulated but always infused with character, tonal shading and a sense of fantasy and exploration. There was a wide and beautifully gauged plethora of contrasted dynamics. For the students of the academy, this was a textbook demonstration of superb pianism and interpretive insight in scores they are unlikely to hear again in such a concentrated presentation.

While the rolling chords of Godowsky’s initial study of the first etude ring with familiarity, the second for left hand in D Major is a light, playful version that fit Libetta’s lithe touch like a glove. The second etude is alternatively turned into a devilish scherzo and a left-handed exploration of the music’s base line. Libetta exerted firm control, playing clusters of notes at a steady but rapid clip. In the familiar Etude No. 3,  he managed to achieve with one hand the flowing poetry of Chopin’s iconic melody without resort to affectation. 

Libetta was at his best in the seven studies of the fifth etude. An almost Mendelssohnian song without words was airy and lyrical. The wild flurries of notes in the tarantella were deftly dispatched and  a quirky, modernist Prokofiev infused version was free of pounding bombast.The Toccata version of No. 7 allowed Libetta to throw caution to the winds and revel in displays of speed, volume and sheer intensity.

A very Russian nocturne on the same material balanced Chopin’s characteristic figurations with brooding lines not far removed from Rachmaninoff.  

As a finale,  Godowsky’s rumbling figures created his own revolution out of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. Libetta let loose with full- throttle velocity down to the surprising abruptness of the final chords.

Despite a standing, cheering ovation from the sizable and appreciative audience, the self effacing pianist took just one curtain call, seemingly still in his own zone of concentration. 

The Miami International Piano Festival Academy presents Duo Taddei-Nicolardi (saxophone and piano) 7:30 p.m. July 11 at Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library in Davie. Pianist Amir Katz plays an all-Liszt program 7:30 p.m. July 12.

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Sun Jul 8, 2018
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