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8.557848 - BUSONI, F.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / 4 Bagatelles (Joseph Lin, Loeb)
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 • Bagatelles


(Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto) Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence in 1866, the 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, studying with Carl Reinecke, before teaching at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performance occupied much of his attention until the turn of the twentieth century, when composition began to assume new importance, though never dominance, in his career. Apart from 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. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music long remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were bound up with a wholly re-creative approach to the musical past that has only gained wider currency in recent decades.

Busoni composed almost no chamber music in his maturity. Most of the works of this type appeared during the years 1878-90 (between his twelfth and 24th years), at a time when the child prodigy was fast emerging as a formidable pianist of the younger generation. Among these works are several from the late 1870s that feature clarinet, reflecting the fact that Busoni's father Ferdinando was a virtuoso on that instrument, while from the 1880s come three string quartets and several pieces for cello and piano [Naxos 8.555691]. From the same period come the Four Bagatelles for violin and piano. Written in Leipzig during April 1888 for the seven-year-old Egon Petri, later a pianist of the highest distinction, these unpretentious pieces are hardly for beginners, while their highly resourceful deployment of popular tunes from the day ( 'O du lieber Augustin' in the third piece, and 'Schöne Minka' in the fourth) indicate Busoni's ability to integrate differing styles and types of music into his own work.

Aus der Zopfzeit (From the time of the eighteenth-century Zopfstil ) is a lively number in whose outer sections the instruments imitate each other closely, before diversifying in its whimsical central section. Kleiner Mohrentanz (Little Moorish Dance) features a capricious theme for the piano over pizzicato violin chords, and with some lively exchanges during its course. Wiener Tanzweise (Viennese Dance Tune) is a charming piece in which the violin and the piano trade off melody and accompaniment in an appropriately affectionate manner. Kosakenritt (Ride of the Cossacks) then rounds off the sequence with music of mounting dash and excitement.

Two years later Busoni was in St Petersburg, where he won the Rubinstein Prize for piano and composition. One of the works that he submitted in the latter category was his First Violin Sonata (written in Helsinki earlier during 1890), a strikingly assured work whose three-movement form and forcefulness of manner place it in the lineage of Austro-German Romanticism that the older composer was later to disown. Untypical though it may be, its musical attractions are yet considerable.

The opening movement sets off with a determined theme in which the violin's melody and the piano's accompaniment are closely interlinked. The second theme is more pensive, yet without undermining the music's surging emotion. The development puts the themes through a notably Brahmsian process of harmonic and rhythmic change, reaching a climax in which the first theme is heard in an intensified form. The second theme is now recalled, but its predecessor dominates the restless coda. The slow movement opens with subdued exchanges, opening out into an eloquent violin melody that looks back to Schumann and even Beethoven. This builds purposefully to a brief climax that again interweaves the instruments in noble accord, before subsiding into a serene calm by the close. The finale begins with breathless violin phrases over a 'running' piano accompaniment. A second theme is less impulsive, moving to a robust codetta. The development is taken up with the first theme, passed animatedly between instruments, before the movement heads into a reprise that, initially dwelling on the lyrical second theme, brings about the headlong and decisive conclusion.

Busoni's output slackened noticeably in the 1890s as his career as a virtuoso pianist gathered momentum. The latter half of the decade nevertheless saw a group of significant pieces, of which the most important is the Second Violin Sonata. Composed during the summer of 1898 (and revised for publication in 1900), it was first performed by Viktor Novácek with the composer in Helsinki on 30th September that year. Novácek's brother Ottokar was a close friend of the composer, and his death in February 1900 led Busoni to dedicate the work, which he declared his real 'Op. 1' in the sense that in it he had found his true voice, to his memory. Once again there are three movements, though here the form (partly inspired by Beethoven's Op. 109 piano sonata) is highly unorthodox: a preludal first movement is followed by a hectic scherzo, then a set of variations culminating in a powerful fugue.

The first movement opens quietly in the piano, violin entering to confirm the mood of rumination with a theme of wistful sadness. The second theme, over an undulating piano phrase typical of Busoni, is more rhapsodic in manner, and duly intensifies towards the impulsive central span. With the initial calm restored, the first theme returns to direct the movement towards a quiet though searching close. With barely a pause, the second movement takes off. This is a breathless tarantella which, though not without a corresponding wit, offers the necessary foil to its predecessor by dint of its coursing virtuosity.

The third movement unfolds as a large-scale theme with variations. It begins with an understated introduction, in which elements from the preceding movements are subtly alluded to, ensuring an audible unity across the work as a whole. The theme itself, Bach's chorale 'Wie wohl ist mir' (taken from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach ), is heard simply and movingly on both instruments. The first variation is flowing in its expression; the second is a vigorous, march-like transformation; and the third is a breathless moto perpetuo for the violin. The fourth variation is a plaintive minor-key study whose intricate texture and harmonic finesse anticipate the composer's full maturity. There follows a fugue that, beginning calmly enough, soon acquires a heightened eloquence as the music evinces new emotional reserves. At its climax the tempo increases in an atmosphere of mounting excitement. The climax is less notable, however, than its subsequent tapering away into a coda that revisits the movement's introduction, now with an expressive repose that touchingly confirms a journey now being completed.

The sonata stands poised on the threshold of Busoni's mature creativity over the next quartercentury. Yet other than the Albumleaf for flute and piano (1916) and Elegie for clarinet and piano (1921), there were no further additions to a genre he might have been expected to enrich.

Richard Whitehouse


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