About this Recording
8.570543 - BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 4 (Harden) - Elegien / Fantasia nach J. S. Bach / Toccata
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Piano Music • 4

 

Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli (near Florence) in 1866, only child of a clarinettist father and a pianist mother. He made his début as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, going to Vienna to study the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885 to study with Carl Reinecke, before undertaking teaching spells at conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performance occupied much of his attention until the turn of the twentieth century, when composition began to assume a new importance, though never dominance, in his career. Other than living in Zurich during the First World War, he resided in Berlin from 1894 until his death in 1924. The essence of Busoni’s music lies in its synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect, imagination and discipline. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were bound up with a re-creative approach to the past as has only gained currency in recent decades.

Bach was a pervasive presence both in the contrapuntal aspect of Busoni’s music and in his repertoire as a performer; a process of assimilation that culminated in the Bach-Busoni Edition, published in 1918. Busoni’s later Bach-related work is more creative interpretation than arrangement, but strength of personality is inherent in his earliest transcriptions. One such is the Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532, among his first re-workings of organ pieces made in Leipzig during the early 1880s. Published in Volume Three of ‘Bach-Busoni’, it represents the virtuoso idiom of Liszt and Brahms at its most commanding. The Prelude is one of Bach’s most thoughtful, opening with vigorous scalic ascents then proceeding with an animated polyphonic discourse that builds in intensity before finding resolution in a hushed postlude. The Fugue reinforces this tonal solidity with a contrapuntal display that deploys its procedures with a robust animation such as almost conceals its mastery. The final bars rank among Bach’s most effulgent, and are recognised as such by Busoni in his imposing transcription.

Busoni composed his Elegien in Vienna during the autumn of 1907. With the questing Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music immediately behind him, they represent a concerted attempt to put aspects of his new approach to harmony and form into practice. Not for nothing did he regard them as the point where he discovered his true identity as a composer. Even at his most radical, Busoni never rejected what had gone before; the Elegien reflect past concerns as strongly as they anticipate future preoccupations, hence the respective nature of the even-numbered pieces as opposed to that of the odd-numbered ones.

The first elegy, Nach der Wendung (Recueillement), pensively unfolds a tonal process that is no less ambiguous for its restraint. Right from the questioning initial phrase, this evolves with the greatest subtlety, Busoni taking utmost care to ensure that its evolution is distributed across all levels of the piano writing so that the music unfolds with absolute formal consistency yet without ever seeking resolution.

The second elegy, All’Italia! (in modo napoletano), paraphrases the Italian elements from Busoni’s Piano Concerto, but in a way that now places their extroversion in a distanced, even remote light. Arising out of the depths of the piano, the music pays homage to its antecedents first with a welling up of fervent sentiment, then with a lively tarantella motion that tempers its energy with a Lisztian sense of fantasy.

The third elegy, Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir (Choralvorspiel), draws on a Lutheran chorale for music whose vision is shot-through with anxiety. It evolves with great intricacy as the chorale theme is allowed to ‘bleed’ across the various registers, building gradually to a culmination in which the theme ricochets across the texture, before a sequence of quicksilver arpeggios spirit it away into nothingness.

The fourth elegy, Turandots Frauengemach (Intermezzo), is a cunning transcription from Busoni’s incidental music to Gozzi’s Turandot. Its rolling chords and limpid passage-work denote an immediate lightening of mood, reinforced by the lively syncopation of the central section which features a well-known and allegedly ‘Chinese’ tune. The initial music then returns by way of a delicate yet capricious rounding-off.

The fifth elegy, Die Nächtlichen (Walzer), is a further Turandot transcription but far removed from its source through the complex interplay of modes (Busoni’s replacement for the key relationships of classical tonality) and superfine dynamics. Its rapid sorties up and down the keyboard are quickly drawn into a densely woven texture where melody and accompaniment are inextricably intertwined.

The sixth elegy, Erscheinung (Notturno), anticipates an episode in Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl. Moving further into undisclosed territory, it pursues an equivocal discourse whose two themes, respectively expressive and hesitant, both echo and anticipate each other on the way to a plateau (i.e. not climax) of inward emotion, and in which a questioning aura recedes tantalizingly beyond earshot at the close.

In June 1909 Busoni composed a Berceuse that became the seventh elegy (and was itself rewritten and expanded as Berceuse élégiaque). Over a gently undulating motion, music of harmonic subtlety and tonal ambiguity unfolds in an almost intuitive manner, given definition by the intensifying dynamic terraces that reach a point of rapt inner tension, before dispersing into the fugitive calm from which the piece emerged.

Also composed in June 1909, Fantasia after J.S. Bach is dedicated to the memory of Busoni’s father Ferdinando. Although the piece sounds backward-looking in context, its concept points determinedly towards the future. Drawing on Bach organ pieces (and later included in Volume Four of ‘Bach-Busoni’), it is neither transcription nor paraphrase but (in Busoni’s own term) a Nachdichtung – the ‘translation’ of a musical text into another medium. Beginning with flurries of arpeggios and imitative counterpoint, the music alights on the chorale Christ, du bist der helle Tag that sets in motion several animated and yet restrained variants. There follows an expanded adaptation of the chorale Gottes Sohn ist kommen (better known as In dulci jubilo), which reaches a brief but fervent climax where all of the motivic material is touched upon. The music now gradually gathers in intensity towards a statement of the chorale Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott which has all but dissolved into bell-sounds towards the close: marked riconciliato, these final bars intermingle major and minor chords to serene and moving effect.

Toccata was completed in September 1920, following Busoni’s return to Berlin after having spent the war years in Zurich. He was engaged in earnest on his crowning achievement, the music-drama Doktor Faust, whose essence pervades this most virtuosic yet also aggressive of the composer’s later piano works. The subtitle Preludio-Fantasia-Ciaccona indicates its three-part formal division. The Preludio starts with incisive descending sequences through which a tensile theme makes itself apparent. After a pause, the Fantasia begins in nonplussed fashion; the aforementioned theme is reordered over seven sections that veer between the conciliatory and the sardonic. Following droll repeated chords, the Ciaconna is launched with hectic passagework that increases in intensity as the music draws on earlier ideas on its way to a determined close. These concluding bars yield music in which decisiveness and desperation are made to seem one and the same.

Richard Whitehouse


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