About this Recording
8.110777 - BUSONI AND HIS PUPILS (1922-1952)

Great Pianists: Busoni (1866-1924) and his Pupils
Busoni’s Complete Recordings

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni is remembered as a great pianist, artist and musician. He wanted to be remembered as a composer, but at this point in history his ranking in that capacity is not as high as it perhaps should be. He was born on 1st April 1866 in Empoli, Italy. The son of a clarinettist father and pianist mother, the child prodigy Busoni became the main source of income for the family from the age of seven. It was his father who instilled in his son a love of the music of Bach. After enrolling at the Vienna Academy at the age of nine, Busoni received further influences from Wilhelm Meyer, with whom he studied composition in Graz. Meyer introduced the impressionable fifteen-yearold to the music of Mozart, mysticism and oriental philosophy. After teaching posts in Helsinki and Boston, Busoni settled in Berlin in 1894 and concentrated on his piano technique as well as composition. In 1911 he gave a famous series of six piano recitals in Berlin of the music of Liszt, and these sealed his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of his generation. The following year he toured Italy and a few years later made a four-month tour of America. During the First World War Busoni lived in Switzerland, but returned to Berlin in 1920. Because he received little success from his compositions, Busoni had to earn his living as a concert pianist, something he did not enjoy.

If Busoni’s reputation as a pianist relied solely on the recordings he left to posterity, he might not be thought of so highly today. Reports of his playing, however, confirm his greatness in the concert hall. In October 1919 he was in London to give a recital at the Wigmore Hall. He played an uncompromising (yet today more common) programme of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in B flat, Op. 106, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. A critic wrote, ‘He makes us feel not that he is “playing Beethoven”, but that if Beethoven were here and now to step down from his immortality and revisit this earth….and were to play over his works to us – this is how he would play them’. When commenting on the filling out of textures and the filling in of notes, the critic wrote, ‘he was putting before us what the composer meant to put on paper, but was unable to do’. A further concert followed in December where he played Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Chopin’s Four Ballades. Busoni’s Chopin playing has often been criticized, and here was no exception, ‘He submits Chopin to an iron intellectual discipline, eliminating every hint of waywardness, of improvisation, of tenderness’.

Between these two recitals, on 18th and 19th November 1919, Busoni made some recordings for the English Columbia Company. He recorded twelve works on twelve sides, recording each side twice, with the exception of the last side (Weber’s Perpetuum Mobile from the Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 24) which he played three times. Evidently he hated the experience. In a letter to his wife written a day after the second session, he said, ‘….my suffering over the toil of making gramophone records came to an end yesterday, after playing for three and a half hours! I feel rather battered today, but it is over. Since the first day, I have been as depressed as if I were expecting to have an operation. To do it is stupid and a strain’. He continued, complaining that the Faust Waltz, arranged by Liszt, had to be cut from ten minutes to four minutes in order to fit onto one side of a 78rpm disc. Busoni’s ‘suffering’ was not at an end, because none of the discs could be issued. This is almost certainly because of technical rather than musical defects, and apparently all the sides were rejected by the processing factory as ‘not up to standard’.

Busoni returned to London in January 1922 to give a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall and play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch. The last concert in the series, presented to a small but enthusiastic audience, was a two-piano recital where Busoni was joined by his colleague and pupil Egon Petri in a programme of works by Busoni, including his Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Nine days later he was back at the Columbia studios where he played two more takes of most of the sides he had recorded three years before. He omitted, however, a movement from a Mozart piano concerto (his own arrangement of the Andantino from K. 271), and three works by Liszt, the Faust Waltz, Valse Oubliée, and La Chasse (Paganini Etude No. 5). He tried the Weber Perpetuum Mobile again but that, and the Petrarch Sonnet 123 by Liszt were never issued. What remains of his recorded legacy are the published sides that are on this compact disc, as everything else was destroyed in a fire at the Columbia factory in the early 1920s. The duplication of the Etude in G flat, Op. 10, No. 5, is curious. The matrix numbers are out of sequence with the rest of the recordings and the same work is recorded on consecutive matrices, the second time with the addition of the Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7.

Because of the conditions under which Busoni made these records, and the fact that he was an artist who was at his best performing works on a large scale, these discs should not be taken as a completely true representation of his art as a pianist. Careful listening, however, reveals some fine things, and the best of the recorded titles, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor by Liszt, is very impressive. The Bach chorale affords the opportunity to hear Busoni in one of his own arrangements with extraordinary finger technique and control of tone, whilst the Chopin Etudes, and particularly the Nocturne, give ample proof to the explanation of Busoni’s attitude and style of Chopin playing. Incidentally, although he recorded the first of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, he offered to record them all for Columbia: his offer was rejected.

As mentioned above, Egon Petri was a friend and colleague of Busoni, who took the mantle of his master upon him after Busoni’s death. An early promoter of Busoni’s mammoth Piano Concerto, Op. 39, Petri lived until 1962, spending his later years teaching at Mills College in California. Michael von Zadora was born in New York to Polish parents. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, then with Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna, and Busoni in Berlin. Around the time of the First World War he taught at what is now the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Zadora helped Petri prepare the vocal score of Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust. Edward Weiss, although born in New York, studied in Berlin with Xaver Scharwenka. He began studying with Busoni in 1914, accompanied him on his tour of America in 1915 and returned to Europe with him. In 1921 he made his début with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Busoni conducting, and continued to perform and teach into the 1970s.

© Jonathan Summers

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