About this Recording
8.573751 - BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 9 (Harden) - Una festa di villaggio / Racconti fantastici / Danze antiche / Suite campestre
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Music • 9


Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli (near Florence) on 1 April 1866, the only child of a clarinettist father and pianist mother. He made his debut as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, before relocating to Vienna for study and performance the next year. On the advice of Brahms, he moved to Leipzig in 1885 studying there with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories of Helsinki and Moscow. Performing took up much of his attention until the turn of the century, when composing began to take on greater importance, but never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period spent in Zurich during 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 a synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect, the imaginative and the rigorous. 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 are completely bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past which has only gained wider currency over recent decades. Busoni left a sizable body of orchestral music along with 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 a performer; a process of assimilation which culminated with the Bach-Busoni Edition published in 1918. Although Busoni’s later such work is arguably more creative interpretation than arrangement, an underlying strength of personality can be sensed from the very earliest of his transcriptions.

The present disc surveys Busoni’s early piano works, all written between the age of 11 and 15. It is a measure of the respect accorded him as composer as well as pianist that many of these were published soon after completion; something Busoni later regretted while making little effort to supress his youthful efforts. Aside from its technical finesse, this music offers tangible evidence of his precocious absorbing of earlier composers—starting (as Busoni was always wont to do) with Bach before extending to Clementi, Mozart, Weber and Schumann. In the decade following the latest of these pieces, Busoni was to confront head-on the idioms of Rubinstein, Brahms and Liszt—in the process arriving at a late-Romantic virtuosity that he went on to transcend in the startling and often visionary piano music of his final two decades.

The ‘six characteristic pieces’ of Una festa di villaggio (1881) comprise the most substantial of Busoni’s early piano works, encompassing as it does the day’s events of a village festival—perhaps akin to those in the villages around Empoli and Trieste where Busoni spent his youth. Over undulating figuration, Preparazione alla festa unfolds with mounting anticipation but the music alights on a more reflective mood before its teasing close. Marcia trionfale starts as a forthright march, but again the central section ensures contrast with its wistful elegance. In chiesa focuses on dense and (appropriately) chorale-like harmonies, complemented by more flowing interludes, then La fiera assumes a more nonchalant manner in its harmonic clashes and no less capricious episodes evoking the commedia dell’arte market place (Mercato) and figures of Zingari, Musette, Mago and Pagliaccio,—to which Danza duly responds with its suave main theme and spirited asides. Notte rounds off this cycle in a mood of subdued recollection, touching obliquely on aspects of its predecessors as it moves towards an ending of calm contentment.

The ‘three characteristic pieces’ of Racconti fantastici were published in 1882, though it is likely that this cycle was written three or even four years earlier. Duello evokes the title via a two-part invention that unfolds in sturdy and animated terms towards its decisive close. Klein Zaches, inspired by the early Romantic author and composer ETA Hoffmann, depicts a misshapen dwarf, whose spidery legs can hardly carry him but who possesses magic powers, in music which invokes the sardonic streak often found in Busoni’s maturity, albeit in a good-humoured and playful manner. La caverna di Steenfol, based on a fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff, is the most elaborate piece: the tale is of a fisherman entering a pact with the devil, conjured up in apprehensive terms and heading to an ominous ending.

The four pieces which comprise Danze antiche (1878–79) were performed by the composer himself at his early recitals, and afford keen insight into the way Busoni drew upon Baroque and Classical models without his music sounding at all archaic in its demeanour. Minuetto is among the most ingratiating of these youthful pieces, its recreation of the dance measure evincing a very Classical poise and charm. Gavotta focuses on close imitation between the hands which itself limits any real expressive contrast between the main ideas, whereas Giga looks more directly towards Baroque precedent in its limpid figuration and deftly propelled momentum. Bourrée is the most elaborate piece, its robust initial theme complemented by a more yielding central episode in an eventful discourse that reaches a notably terse ending.

The Gavotte in F minor is a stand-alone piece, written in April 1880 (and designated Op. 70 in one of Busoni’s early lists of works). Its indebtedness to Bach does not preclude a personal vein emerging in a lilting central episode which throws the main theme into appealing relief.

The ‘five characteristic pieces’ that comprise Suite campestre (1878) were only published a century after composition; surprising, as this is among the most distinctive and engaging of Busoni’s youthful works. Written while he was studying in Vienna, the ‘pastoral suite’ connotations are evident from the start. Canzone villereccia del mattino unfolds over the simplest of ‘drone’ bases, its modal contours imparting a mock sternness that is duly offset in La caccia with its capering demeanour and an insistence that takes on appreciably greater force in L’orgia, notably the latter’s headlong figuration and surging final gestures. Il ritorno is the lengthiest and most imaginative piece, its contrasting themes—elaborated with no mean subtlety—are at once confiding and yet apprehensive to a degree characteristic of the mature composer. Preghiera della sera then furthers this equivocation via its probing inwardness which secures merely a tenuous resolution with the resigned closing bars; itself a pointer towards that ambivalent expression which is a hallmark of Busoni’s mature music.

The final work on the present disc is also the earliest. Written towards the end of 1877, the Cinq Pièces finds Busoni immersed in the Baroque procedures that informed his thinking from the very beginning. Yet there is no sense of pastiche, let alone of parody, in the way that he renders these models from the vantage of what might be called a mid- Romantic perspective. Preludio commences this sequence in elegant and understated terms, its deliberation finding due contrast in Etude with its methodical and unbroken flow of figuration. Menuetto looks forward stylistically in this elegantly Classical take on the dance in question, while Gavotta pursues an unexpectedly subdued and ruminative take upon its model. Gigue then provides an appropriately lively ending as it heads forth with an unceasing vigour to its decisive close.

Richard Whitehouse

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