Until the appearance of Pro Piano's Godowsky: Java Suite featuring pianist Esther Budiardjo, one of the great gaping holes in the recorded repertoire had been Leopold Godowsky's mammoth and valedictory Java Suite, composed in the mid-'20s. Godowsky enjoys one of the most titanic reputations in the history of pianism, yet his recordings and piano rolls leave a strangely uneven and mixed impression of his artistry. Godowsky's compositional output is dominated by transcriptions of various kinds, and some of them -- for example, his transcriptions that superimpose one Chopin etude on top of another -- are so complex and difficult as to inspire bewilderment rather than awe. The Java Suite is also sometimes mistakenly regarded as a transcription of Indonesian music, which it is not; it is more like Godowsky's equivalent of Albéniz's Iberia, a large cycle of 14 piano pieces that categorize the extent of both his fertile imagination and technical resources. One of the reasons artists have been slow to record the work is its score; it is some of the "blackest" piano music ever published. Although its level of difficulty is very high, especially so in certain passages, it is not the most difficult piano music ever written, just some of the most heavily marked, so laden with information about expression down to the last detail that it's difficult -- near impossible -- to read.
Pianist Esther Budiardjo, who is a native of Jakarta, must have excellent eyesight, as her interpretation of this finger-breaking work is flawless and authoritative. Outside of a few character pieces he composed, Godowsky's music can seem distant owing to its fashioning to such great extent from the works of others. In the Java Suite, he blossoms and we get to hear something of the spiritual properties reported as part of his personality, yet seldom heard in his other music. Godowsky didn't limit himself to Java alone in creating the four sets that make up the suite; it is a colorfully crazy quilt of impressions and sounds drawn from his whole life's experiences, with the Indonesian aspect functioning as the glue that holds it all together. Budiardjo succeeds in bringing both the color and emotional depth out of the inky blackness that is Godowsky's score. Although it draws from impressions ranging from Indonesian gamelan to Viennese music Godowsky also loved and celebrated elsewhere, Java Suite is looks forward rather than backward; the movement "Wayang -- Putwa (Puppet Shadow Plays)" sounds like Bill Evans, who wasn't quite born when this music was written down. However, some of it plays well from within its era; at points the music strikes a concordance with images of Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky caressing in some den of iniquity imagined by Elinor Glyn. Godowsky's subtle incorporation of vaguely popular elements into this music, which otherwise seems dead serious on the page, is a large part of its appeal.
Producers Chitose Okashiro and Ricard de la Rosa recorded Budiardjo's piano with the ears of pianists, not those of recording engineers; the piano sound is ringing, rich, full, and as if though one could find a place to sit within the instrument. This Pro Piano disc is capable of reaching and satisfying a wide audience -- those who love Debussy, the Pacific Rim culture, or just plain pianism at its grandest will not be able to get Esther Budiardjo's Godowsky: Java Suite out of their players.