About this Recording
8.570891 - BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Harden) - 6 Studies / 6 Pieces / 10 Variations on Chopin's C Minor Prelude
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Music • 5


Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, on 1 April 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 for study the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885, where he studied with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performance occupied much of his attention until the turn of the twentieth century, when composing began to assume a new importance, though never (to his regret) dominance, in his career. Aside from living in Zurich for most of the First World War, he resided 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 rigorous. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music largely remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were wholly bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past that has only gained wider currency over recent decades. Busoni left a substantial body of orchestral music, a fair number of chamber works and songs [a selection is on 8.557245] and four operas (the last, Doktor Faust, being his magnum opus though left unfinished at his death), but piano music constitutes the largest part of his output. Bach was a pervasive presence from the beginning, whether in the contrapuntal aspect of his music or in Busoni’s repertoire as a performer; a process of assimilation culminating with the Bach-Busoni Edition that was published in 1918. Busoni’s later Bach work is arguably more creative interpretation than arrangement, though strength of personality is evident from his very earliest transcriptions.

Published in July 1918 as part of Volume Three of ‘Bach-Busoni’, the transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat dates from around 1890 and represents Busoni’s approach to Bach at its most grand. Such is apparent in the Prelude, with its powerful rhythmic unisons and muscular part-writing which convey the harmonic solidity and contrapuntal intricacy that gives this music its inherent strength; as equally in the Fugue, building methodically and with a cumulative momentum from its initial understatement to an apotheosis that confirms it among the most monumental of all Bach’s organ works.

1883 was a decisive year for Busoni. Having arrived in Vienna at the beginning of a two-year stay, he made the acquaintance of Brahms, whose influence soon turned his composing away from the emulation of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic models towards an idiom more wholly of the present. The immediate result of this stylistic reorientation was the Six Études, published just a year later as his Op. 16. The existence, however, of four further substantial études (including the Étude en forme de variations, as featured in Volume Two of this series [8.555699]) suggests that Busoni might have intended to extend the sequence, perhaps as far as a cycle of 24.

As to the present set of Études, the preludial first acknowledges an audible debt to Brahms in its flowing passage-work and mellifluous harmony, while the second is redolent perhaps of Mendelssohn in its nimble figuration as well as in the more rhapsodic nature of its central section. The third is a definite highpoint of Busoni’s early maturity, recalling Schumann in its ceaseless underlying figuration though with a decidedly Italianate suavity, contrasted in the fourth with a charged pianism which emulates Chopin at his most demonstrative. The fifth has been designated a Fugue and can be seen as a complement to the forthright Bach transcriptions that Busoni was starting to include in his recitals, then the sixth is a resourceful Scherzo which finds a persuasive accord between the hitherto incompatible virtuosity of Liszt and Brahms in what is a bravura end to the overall sequence.

If the Études mark the onset of Busoni’s most intensive phase as a virtuoso in the true Romantic sense, the Sechs Stücke (Six Pieces) composed in 1895–96 can be seen as its effective endpoint. Other than the Vierte Balletszene (included on Volume Three of this series [8.570249]) from two years earlier, he had written surprisingly little piano music during this period and was not to return to the medium for over a decade. These six diverse and yet complementary pieces are thus a drawing-together of stylistic influences, as well as a setting-out of compositional and pianistic intentions that were not to be pursued.

The first piece, Schwermut, starts with powerfully undulating figuration across the keyboard such as Busoni was to refine in his Piano Concerto but here employs more for its rhetorical grandeur. The second piece, Frohsinn, has a nonchalance and deftly propelled vigour that make for highly superior salon music; something which the third piece, Scherzino, emulates in its capering demeanour and the teasing interplay between melody and accompaniment. The next two are much the longest of the set: the fourth piece, Fantasia in modo antico, unfolds in a nobly Bachian manner before switching to fugal writing that draws the previous ideas into an altogether more intensive discourse; whereas the fifth piece, Finnische Ballade, is a through-composed study in folk-inflected themes that are by turns atmospheric and eloquent. The brief sixth piece, Exeunt omnes, dismisses such introspection in a characterful display of virtuosity.

Virtuosity is the defining element of the Variations and Fugue in Free Form on Chopin’s Prelude in C minor (included on Volume Two of this series [8.555699]) that Busoni had composed in Vienna during 1884–85 and which fairly sums up the many possibilities of Romantic pianism. The older composer had come to see the work as excessive and, in April 1922, produced the Zehn Variationen über ein Präludium von Chopin—substantially compressed and rewritten in line with his mature aesthetic; a version curtailed further for the posthumous second edition of his summative Klavierübung, published in 1925.

The Chopin Prelude itself is the visionary twentieth from the set of 24 Preludes, originally with its striking diminuendo from forte to piano but now given a dynamic overhaul typical of the late Busoni. The first variation unfolds with a methodical lilt which the second transforms into dancing figuration, while the third opens up new harmonic perspectives that the fourth accordingly intensifies. The fifth variation strikes an angular tone that the sixth evolves into something decidedly Mephistophelian, then the seventh adopts an improvisatory manner such as the eighth blithely counters with its capricious demeanour. Opening with a peremptory call to attention, the ninth variation adopts the manner of a culminating fugue that, in the tenth, becomes transformed into a waltz that is a ‘hommage’ as affectionate as it is ironic. The brief coda then evinces an urgent momentum that closes the work in a brusque and decisive fashion.

Richard Whitehouse

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