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Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, July 2011

The grandeur of the Bach “St Anne” Prelude and Fugue is writ large in Wolf Harden’s performance of the Busoni transcription. So much so that, while one may be aware of the origins of the piece, one hardly misses the sound of the organ. Harden captures the tower of sound, as well as the slithering counterpoint. This is a tremendous reading in which Harden impeccably characterises the various sections with a wide variety of touch.

The first Etude of Op. 16 is identifiably Brahmsian, with its active bass octaves. Elements of a somewhat speedier (Brahms) Op. 118/6 seem inherent in the Busoni to the present writer. Harden’s staccato in the ensuing Allegro moderato Etude is a joy—he maintains the tone (and, when required, heaviness) in each note. Yet the—again Brahmsian—mellifluous central section reveals another side to Busoni, the mysterious. Harden’s playing is consistently idiomatic, both here and elsewhere on the disc. The Fuga (the fifth Etude) is Busoni through and through—uncompromising, granitic sonorities.

The Six Pieces, Op. 33b are immensely strong compositions. The first, “Schwermut” (Melancholy) has some characteristically trans-keyboard writing yet in ethos seems close to late Liszt. In complete contrast, “Frohsinn” (Gaiety) is utter delight, as is the Scherzino that follows. Salon music par excellence, both. Perhaps Harden could have been that bit lighter and more playful in the Scherzino. The fourth and fifth pieces both last over six minutes each. The fourth is a “Fantasia in modo antico” and begins with much restrained grandeur, drawing a tone of burnished ebony from Harden. The fugal writing is determined and relentless—but this is at speed, in contrast to the tread of the earlier part. The “Finnische Ballade” is magnificently pedal-soaked and atmospheric. Moments of grittiness are juxtaposed with moments of frozen, Mussorgskian serenity. The challenges of the finale are admirably met by Harden.

The 1922 version of the Chopin Variations…begins in the shadowiest manner possible before the Chopin steals in. The revesion to the opening atmosphere at the first opportunity is telling—this is Chopin being absorbed into Busoni, not merely varied. Harden seems to relish the explorations as well as the way Busoni viscerally enlarges the Chopin original. Tremendous.

A worthy volume in the Naxos Busoni series.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, May 2010

I enjoyed this recital, not least because it juxtaposes old and newer works. The performances are given by someone who obviously cares for the music. The sound is clear and precise and the notes pretty good. This disk is a bargain which is too good to miss.

Jed Distler, August 2009

Wolf Harden’s Busoni cycle reaches a high point with Volume 5. Almost alone among pianists who’ve tackled Busoni’s formidable Bach “St Anne” transcription on disc, Harden does not aim to imitate the organ, but instead pares down the booming basses and delivers the treble register octaves with cutting brilliance and meticulously shaped ornaments. Only in the fugue’s climactic final pages does Harden’s energy flag. Similarly, he brings welcome transparency to the full-bodied, Schumannesque textures throughout the early Op. 16 Etudes and the later, more harmonically sophisticated Op. 33b pieces.

Volume 5 offers the Chopin Variations in their compressed 1922 revision, which is no less ambitious and difficult than the longer, earlier version on Volume 2. Harden plays superbly, particularly in regard to his deft balancing of rapid, chromatic passagework as it zooms in and around block chords and pillar-like bass octaves. Richard Whitehouse’s informative booklet notes and Naxos’ warm, clear engineering make this disc all the more attractive. Strongly recommended.

Uncle Dave Lewis, June 2009

While flanked by Busoni’s familiar transcription of J.S. Bach’s “St Anne” prelude and his extraordinary 1922 rewrite of his much earlier Variations on Chopin’s C minor Prelude, the real jewels in this crown are a couple of obscure suites, the Six Etudes, Op. 16 (1883), and the Six Pieces, Op. 33b (1895–1896). The first set is a wild and wooly series of etudes Busoni composed when he was only 17 years of age, and it contains so many seeds of his mature style that certain pieces—such as the fifth etude “Fuga”—could nearly be mistaken for the Busoni of 30 or so years later. The Six Pieces date from just before the Violin Concerto and Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 36a, which Busoni cited as representing a stylistic breakthrough for him. The virtuoso textures he achieves in these pieces—“Frohsion” utilizes a sweeping figure Busoni returned to in the elegy entitled “Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir” from the Sechs Elegien of 1907—are ones that he would revisit. The rest of it—its comparatively conservative harmonic style and stern, seriously minded post-romantic posture—are things Busoni would leave behind for good.

Harden is very sharp throughout this whole recording, even as his piano seems to have something of a hiccup here and there. In the Bach transcription and Chopin variations, Harden is entering the market with some already stiff competition afoot, for example Demidenko in the Bach and Kaoru Bingham in the Chopin. However, in the other works Harden is running practically unopposed, and while no “world premiere” is claimed for the Six Pieces Op. 33b, this does seem to be the first complete recording of that set, from which the “Fantasia in modo antico” is usually singled out and played as a separate entity. If Harden may feel the competition, he doesn’t show it, as he treats all of the music here with the same level of respect and has obviously put a lot of hard work into this production.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Busoni was his own worst enemy, always seemingly confused as to the direction he wished to travel, and today his music is largely ignored. Maybe his career as a concert pianist was too dominant to allow a concerted writing period, and he ended up as one of the most enigmatic musical figures at the turn of the 19th century. The Six Etudes come from 1884, the beginning of the period where he was much under the influence of Brahms and Mendelssohn. Often repetitive as he spins out his thematic material as far as it will go, and using key changes in a last bid to reutilise it. The Six Pieces was completed twelve years later and marked the end of his true Romantic era. Each is given a descriptive title, and, as with the earlier score, it would be difficult not to enjoy the Mendelssohn inspired second piece, Gaiety. It spins happily along, while the Little Scherzo is infectious. Framing these two extended scores we have Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat, a very imposing transcription of a monumental organ score. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Ten Variations on Chopin’s C minor Prelude in his 1922 reworking of the original 1885 score. Using the twentieth from Chopin’s 24 Preludes, it is an excellent example in the art of variation and ends in a big virtuoso coda. All of this forms the fifth volume in Wolf Harden’s cycle of the composer’s solo piano output, and again shows him as a master of the keyboard who revels in the music’s complexity and delicate in its simplicity. There is a slight metallic quality to the sound, but nothing to detract from our enjoyment.

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