About this Recording
8.572077 - BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Harden) - Piano Sonata in F Minor / Prelude et etude / Liszt - Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Music • 6


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 for study and performance the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885, studying there with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performing occupied much of his attention until the turn of the new century, when composing began to assume a new importance, but never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period in Zurich during the First World War, he lived 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; the imaginative and the rigorous. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music for long remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations are 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 and four operas (the last, Doktor Faust, being his magnum opus and left unfinished at his death), but piano music forms the largest part of his output. Bach was a pervasive presence from the outset, both in the contrapuntal aspect of his music and in his repertoire as performer; a process of assimilation culminating with the Bach-Busoni Edition published in 1918. Although Busoni’s later such work can be seen more as creative interpretation than arrangement, an underlying strength of personality is evident from his earliest transcriptions.

Other than Bach, it is Liszt who features most prominently in Busoni’s output as arranger. No performer worked harder to keep Liszt’s music before the public, or pursued more vigorously the idea of transcription as a re-creative act that the latter demonstrated in his arrangements of a vast number of pieces (and it is worth recalling the words of pianist and composer Ronald Stevenson that if the works of the major nineteenth-century composers suddenly disappeared, a large part could still be recovered through transcriptions Liszt made of them).

The most important transcription which Busoni made of Liszt is that of the Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Published in 1850, this was the first large-scale piece Liszt wrote for organ, though the score is notated so that it can also be played on the (now defunct) pedal piano or by piano duet. What the composer had not envisaged was its performance for solo piano, something that Busoni remedied with his transcription of 1897. The outcome fairly sums up the possibilities of piano writing during the Romantic era.

The transcription faithfully preserves the almost symphonic three-part format of Liszt’s original. The Fantasia starts with forcefully chordal writing across the keyboard, in which the chorale taken from Meyerbeer’s opera Le prophète is first heard, contrasting with more inward yet no less intricate writing in the piano’s upper register. The initial music then returns with even more virtuosic zeal, out of which an almost martial idea assumes the foreground. The accrued momentum spills over into an elaborate ‘cadenza’ passage, but this dies down to lead into the Adagio, which unfolds around a noble yet reserved theme where melody and accompaniment are ruminatively intertwined. This opens out harmonically into some of Liszt’s most eloquent writing (faithfully conveyed by Busoni’s transcription), before regaining its initial poise. The chorale theme is heard in its most elemental form, then a hectic passage acts as a transition into the final Fugue, which takes the underlying theme as the basis for a vigorous discourse that touches on most of the subsidiary ideas already heard. Especially notable is the conviction with which the textures of the organ original have been re-imagined in terms of the piano, not least the welter of chords with which the chorale theme is transformed into the work’s apotheosis: a heady confirmation of the triumph of good over evil.

The resurgence of interest in Busoni’s music over recent decades has seen performance and publication of many early piano works, shedding light on a creative talent that was not only precocious but also of real musical worth. A notable instance is the Piano Sonata in F minor that the teenage Busoni composed in 1883, immediately following the Six Etudes [Naxos 8.570891] with which he announced his presence in Vienna. If the latter work betrays the influence of Brahms in its piano writing, the sonata draws on that of Anton Rubinstein in its commanding technique. Along with the original version of the Chopin Variations from a year later [Naxos 8.555699], it represents the culmination of Busoni’s ambitions as a virtuoso in the Romantic mould.

The Allegro risoluto opens with a decisive theme to which its lighter yet no less virtuosic successor is an admirable foil. The first theme, most notably its distinctive ‘head motif’, is made the basis of a lengthy development that reaches a forceful climax before the reprise gets underway. This is slightly curtailed, allowing the first theme to round off proceedings in the impulsive coda. In total contrast, the central Andante con moto begins with an eloquent introduction that provides a context for the principal theme, initially reticent though soon taking on a much more imposing manner. The central section sees an increase in tempo as a variant of this theme assumes greater dynamism, yet its natural character is soon reasserted in an expansive climax—elements of the introduction bringing about a calm ending. The finale opens with a fluid introduction, marked ‘In the guise of an improvisation’, arriving at the bottom of the keyboard before the main Allegro fugato ensues with an energetic theme that is embedded in an intricate texture. A sonata-form plan is evident as the music pursues a hectic course; at length culminating in a powerfully-wrought coda that, in recalling its very opening, sees the work through to a powerful close.

Most of the piano works that Busoni wrote during his last decade were studies for his opera Doktor Faust or for inclusion in the Klavierübung published in five parts between 1917 and 1922 (a second, expanded edition appearing the year after his death). Taking its cue from Bach, this is a compendium of Busoni’s writing for piano and his thinking on piano technique, with pieces that serve to improve piano playing and are appreciable as music in their own right. Thus the Prélude et étude en arpèges which, composed in 1923, is among Busoni’s last works.

The Prélude focuses on an undulating arpeggio texture across the keyboard that yields a myriad of harmonic subtleties. Ominous activity in the bass underpins the restive central section, before the opening textures return as if to round out the process, though a return to the previous activity does so instead. The Étude is more demonstrative—the harmonic astringency of the composer’s final years being much in evidence, as is a formal compression that infers much more than is stated, on the way to a complex and yet emotionally detached close.

Richard Whitehouse

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