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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2004

“Busoni was famously contemptuous of the recording process and his anguished letters on the subject at the time are reprinted here (“tired…ill…unprepared!”). In total only four English Columbias were published and all are collated here along with very rare recordings by Busoni’s greatest pupil, Egon Petri, and by a much less well–known musician, his English pupil Rosamond Ley who left no commercial discs behind. Busoni’s recorded pianism has occasioned considerable, frequently negative, comment over the years and has occasionally disconcerted even his greatest admirers in its neutrality towards the romantic repertoire. In all Busoni bequeathed less than half an hour’s recorded music making to posterity — it’s known that he made discs of others works, the hyphenated Mozart–Busoni Andantino, Gounod–Liszt Faust Waltz, Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet, the Paganini–Liszt Etude No 5, Valse Oubliée and Weber’s Perpetuum Mobile, but these were all rejected for publication.

The Bach C major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier allows one to hear Busoni’s extraordinary tonal beauty but along with it some extreme rubati and unexpected accelerandi and decrescendos. He subjects the Prelude in particular to some real metrical extension. The Bach–Busoni Chorale Prelude sounds, indeed is, rushed but it’s gloriously fluent and clearly articulated nevertheless.

Coupled with this on Columbia L1470 was the Ecossaise known as the Scotch Step and as with its disc mate it’s full of verve and wit. When it comes to Chopin things are highly personalised and problematic. The G flat Etude is crisp and impressive but the F sharp Nocturne makes little effect other than one of blank neutrality. The E minor Etude is rather mauled through excessive rubato. In the main his Chopin can be disappointing, mirroring perhaps something of his own ambiguity about the composer. His Liszt, the sole surviving Liszt, is the Hungarian Rhapsody in A minor and it’s a magnificent performance, powerful and incisive, and one that makes one regret anew the lack of those unpublished Liszt sides.

Arbiter coupled their recent release of the Busoni sides with recordings of Busoni’s most distinguished pupil, and assistant, Egon Petri. Naxos adds Petri but also include Michael von Zadora’s The Indian Diary Book I played by Edward Weiss. Petri’s Chaconne goes all guns blazing but his authentic Busoni is beautifully nuanced and idiomatically played. Von Zadora’s Sonatina discs were made for Friends of Recorded Music in 1938 (Nos. 3 and 5) and earlier for Polydor (No.6 — the Carmen sonata) in 1929. His No.3 is really very quick. It just so happens Petri recorded this in 1938 as well — now on APR — and his is pointedly slower, with far more colour. In the riotous Carmen it’s again Petri who bests Zadora in such matters as the mobility in the Chorale left hand and a greater sense of incision generally even though the tempo is here almost the same. Still Zadora’s discs are certainly worth hearing in view of his Busonian credentials. Weiss is maybe less so — it’s always important to hear pupils of Busoni but his Circle LP of the Indian Diary is disappointing.

Since Arbiter and Naxos both cover the Busoni discs comparison is inevitable. There is a heavier veil of shellac hiss on the Arbiter, which broadly adheres more to the Pearl model when it comes to noise suppression. Lower frequencies, bass notes, are better brought out by Naxos but there is more air and brightness in Arbiter’s treble. When it comes to middle frequencies Naxos’s sound slightly more immediate. I’d say that their noise suppression has worked quite well but I can imagine a transfer that gets to grips better with the higher frequencies. Swings and roundabouts — it will also depend on couplings and on price and there at least Naxos is impossible to beat.”

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