About this Recording
8.572922 - BUSONI, F.: Clarinet Concertino / Divertimento / Rondo arlecchinesco / Tanzwalzer (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Eine Lustspielouvertüre • Gesang vom Reigen der Geister • Clarinet Concertino Flute Divertimento • Tanzwalzer • Rondò arlecchinesco

 

Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, on 1 April 1866, the only child of an Italian clarinettist father and a pianist mother of German ancestry. He made his debut as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, going to Vienna for study the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Berlin in 1886, studying with Carl Reinecke. Performance was to occupy much of his attention until the turn of the century, when composition assumed greater importance, though never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period spent in Zurich during the First World War, he lived in Berlin from 1894 until his death on 27 July 1924.

The essence of Busoni’s music lies in its synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect; the imaginative and the systematic. Despite acclaim from both composer and performer colleagues, his music long remained the preserve of an informed few—its aesthetic significance often acknowledged but scarcely reflected in the frequency of its performance. Neither inherently conservative nor aggressively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past that has only gained wider currency in recent decades, and which has also seen renewed interest in his music.

Busoni’s orchestral output has itself been slow to gain wider hearings, which may be for one particular reason. Aside from the monumental Piano Concerto [Naxos 8.572523] and four suites including the Turandot Suite [8.555373], these works tend to be short single-movement pieces that are hard to programme within the context of orchestral concerts as a whole. The present disc gathers together six of them from over a span of 23 years, during which time Busoni alighted on the basis, then gradually refined, the principles of the ‘young’ or renewed classicism that was thereafter to inform his thinking along with all the music from his maturity.

Earliest of these pieces is the Lustspielouvertüre which Busoni composed at a single sitting on 11 July 1897 (and which was revised four years later). His reference to its being ‘Mozartian’ in style was hardly coincidental, as the work marked a decisive move away from the Brahmsian and Wagnerian influences on his music from the previous decade towards a lighter and more flexible idiom such as draw on Mozart, Weber and Mendelssohn without being beholden to any predecessor. Whether or not inspired by a specific play or novel, this ‘Comedy Overture’ is indeed permeated by a fusion of the Italian and Germanic traits from Busoni’s musical ancestry.

The piece itself unfolds as an ingeniously compressed sonata-form movement. It opens with a lively theme shared between woodwind and strings, the brass hinting at a fanfare–like motif which presently comes into its own as it provides the basis for an extensive development. This in turn heads into a strenuous fugato section that turns decisively towards the minor, before an expectant transition brings back the initial ideas which are duly reprised. The fanfare motif is now recalled by woodwind as the momentum builds towards a triumphal apotheosis (with even a nod in the direction of Handel) that sees the work through to its resolute conclusion.

Six of Busoni’s later orchestral works constitute a series of ‘Elegies’, without forming a self-contained group as such. First of these is Berceuse élégiaque of 1909 [8.555373] that is commonly regarded as the composer’s single finest achievement, followed by Nocturne symphonique of 1912–13, which stretches his harmonic and tonal innovations to their limits. After this, Rondò arlecchinesco—composed between April and June 1915 as a preparatory study for the one-act comic opera Arlecchino—might seem something of a reversion, yet its bracing wit and sardonic humour feel no less forward-looking than either of its more earnest predecessors.

An angular trumpet motif leads off a lively and imaginatively scored procession, with strings and percussion hinting at the martial rhythm that is to pervade much of the music. A mock-impassioned fanfare for brass and drums brings a speculative passage for woodwind then resonant brass chords induce a more soulful response from strings. Woodwind add a questioning commentary, before the music breaks into a canter and the earlier animation resumes. A darting motion on strings brings renewed momentum, curtailed by the unexpected entry of a tenor, whose vocalise puts strings and percussion to flight until only the latter’s martial rhythm remains.

Although composed between August and December of the same year, Gesang vom Reigen der Geister (Song of the Spirit Dance) could hardly be more different. The most refined as well as intangible of these ‘Elegies’, it is also the last of a trilogy inspired by Amerindian folklore and musical culture—following on from the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra and the Indianisches Tagesbuch (Indian Diary), Book 1, for solo piano: the present work subsequently being designated Indianisches Tagesbuch, Book 2. Scored for chamber forces, the texture has a delicacy and transparency that parallel a musical content as elusive as in any of the more overtly radical compositions from this period. The work makes discreet use of a spirit dance-song of the Pawnees, which recalls the Indian massacre of Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890.

It begins with an undulating motion in lower strings and woodwind that gradually rises upwards through the orchestra as it opens outward harmonically. Strings and woodwind continue their shadowy interplay while a chorale-like idea is heard on solo trumpet and upper woodwind, elements of which are audible as the music pursues its seemingly intuitive course until timpani unexpectedly intervene, after which strings re-emerge with a more passionate cantilena which in turn makes way for a pensive woodwind passage against spectral pizzicato chords. The closing bars are as mesmeric in their calm elusiveness as any in the composer’s output.

Although the concertos for violin and piano remained Busoni’s only such works, he wrote several later pieces which combine soloist and orchestra on a smaller scale. Composed during March and April 1918, the Clarinet Concertino is a fine example of his renewed classicism—the equable though by no means passive writing for the solo instrument being complemented by the deft scoring for chamber forces in music that epitomizes more than any other those ideals of Mozartian clarity and poise the composer instilled in his later music. Formally, too, the piece impresses through a skilful compression of the customary three movements into a single entity.

The briefest of introductions heralds the soloist in a beguiling theme which soon draws the orchestral forces into an elegant dialogue. This presently heads into a livelier passage that itself closes with a recollection of the opening bars, after which the soloist has a reflective melody commented on by woodwind over a halting pizzicato accompaniment. Upper strings at length provide an evocative counterpoint, before the increasingly animated response of the soloist brings with it a piquant new theme on woodwind. This gathers momentum until it emerges engagingly on strings and the solo clarinet carouses its way to a spirited yet still restrained close.

Following on from the above work in May 1920, the Flute Divertimento is comparable in its formal lucidity and expressive clarity, though here the music has a more capricious and unpredictable manner that reflects not only on the nature of the solo instrument but on Busoni’s rôle as teacher and mentor to the younger generation of composers; not least Kurt Weill, who undertook a transcription of this piece for flute and piano, and whose music from the early 1920s most clearly embodies the intense but never impersonal objectivity which Busoni pursued—albeit on a more elevated and transcendent level than any of those who came after.

Amiable exchanges between strings and woodwind continue for a considerable while (relatively speaking), until the soloist picks up on the last of these over timpani to set in motion a lively dialogue which presently ventures into more unsettled terrain. This provokes a more forthright orchestral response from the orchestra, which the soloist soon placates with an alluring melody heard over an unchanging pizzicato accompaniment. Woodwind adds a tentative commentary, before lower strings ominously emerge. A final lively section dispels any such sombre undertones as soloist and orchestra good-naturedly pursue each other through to a nonchalant close.

Composed between September and October of the same year, Tanzwalzer is the latest work featured here and closest in spirit to the earliest piece on this recording. The dedication ‘to the memory of Johann Strauss II’ is at once in earnest and in affection: the sequence of waltzes is clearly derived from that favoured by the ‘waltz-king’ himself, while the thematic evolution across the piece as a whole is replete with a knowing humour that is never ominous or threatening as in the manner of Ravel’s near-contemporary La valse. Moreover, the work displays its ready wit and extroversion to a greater extent than any other from Busoni’s final years.

The chorale-like opening on brass and strings has a mock portentousness which provides an ideal foil for the main waltz that, after an eruptive brass gesture, elegantly unfolds on woodwind over pizzicato chords. Strings presently join in this equable dialogue, before a hectic galop bursts in with brass and percussion to the fore. Reaching a lively culmination, it passes to a more easeful waltz on woodwind and lower strings which unfolds with real panache before making way for a more rhythmic waltz that draws in the whole orchestra. Aspects of earlier themes flit across the music before the return of the initial waltz effects an increasingly energetic coda.


Richard Whitehouse


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