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Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Busoni – the Visionary Volume II
The Six Sonatinas:-

Sonatina No. 1
Sonatina No. 2, `Sonatina seconda'
Sonatina No. 3, `ad usum infantis'
Sonatina No. 4, `in diem Nativitas Christi MCMXVII'
Sonatina No. 5, `Sonatina brevis in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni'
Sonatina super Carmen [Fantasia on Bizet's 'Carmen']
Toccata in C major for Organ BWV 564 transcribed by BUSONI
Jeni Slotchiver (piano)
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, September 2002
CENTAUR CRC 2681 [68.29]

The visionary Busoni is perhaps, for the unindoctrinated, more readily accessible from his writings than in his music. I might even substitute ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic’ in several instances where I experience occasional bewilderment at the restraint concealing deep matters (though expressed with a supreme command of traditional technique) – the "deceptively calm surface " which conceals cross-references. A quest for the ‘essence’ of music must traverse both familiar and unfamiliar lands. "If ... he demands of his hearers that they shall learn his new idiom with as much sweat and anxiety and as many sleepless hours as he has given to its formation he will have to overcome the almost personal hatred his demands are bound to engender." (Busoni in ‘Down among the dead men’ Bernard Van Dieren. OUP, 1935)

If the essence remains elusive surely a quest for the ‘visionary’ in Busoni is less difficult today than when that was written? Regrettably it is more than likely that the listener envisaged by Van Dieren will remain apathetic rather then react with any kind of protest, or bewilderment. Busoni’s music, which expects much of its listeners, may not be for the layman who simply ‘knows what he likes’ but is it really so obscure and unfathomable?

This second disc of Jeni Slotchiver’s survey of the ‘visionary’ in Busoni traverses both territories. The first CD grouped the ‘Six Elegies’. – for this she has chosen the six pieces for which the composer chose the title ‘Sonatina’. The term generally would refer to a short uncomplicated piece in three or four movements – light-weight, and perhaps a preparatory creation for the larger more serious Sonata form. Quoting ‘Musical America’ the pianist’s notes for this CD read: "in this Sonatina (referring to the first which has no other title) the composer may have regarded himself as the beginner or founder of a new system of harmonies." It is perhaps true that ‘sonatina’ has also, implicit in the title, a didactic aspect – and it is significant that, in this work, the source material comes from the earlier ‘An die Jugend’ – a composition not intended for children to play, but to learn as "visionary sketches of aspects which in his belief music was to assume – and dedicated them ‘To Youth’ which would see the full growth." (Van Dieren, op. cit.)

The semplice opening of this single movement Sonatina is strangely captivating, almost childlike in its appeal. The canvas broadens until the quiet fughetta subject is heard. "The music leaves an earthbound harmony of sure footing" writes the pianist, "to seaworthy and with dizzying embroidery, certain flight". The Allegretto elegante provides a quasi-Scherzo. In the concluding section the theme reappears and the final Epilogo is taken verbatim from ‘An Die Jugend’ which Ronald Stevenson calls ‘the essence of Busoni’. Busoni himself, in a letter to his wife (March 1910) writes "Come follow me into the realm of music ... here there is no end to the astonishment ... unthought of scales extend like hands from one world to another."

The Second Sonatina (1912) is by contrast a demanding work of extreme virtuosity – with neither key nor time signature – and is essentially a work of complex mysticism. Its origins lie in the uncompleted music of ‘Faust’. It ‘contemplates worlds beyond our own" with directions like occulto and opaco.

The third Sonatina, ‘ad usum infantis’ ("encapsulated innocence") has a youthful idea in view: "a sonatina for a child that has the air of a child" and adds to the title ‘pro cembalo composita’ which, since the tone of the modern piano is implicit in the style of the music, has given rise to much controversy. The five movements end with an elegant Polonaise.

The Sonatina ‘in diem nativitatis Christi’ was written for his son Benvenuto and appears, says the pianist, to be the composer’s plea for peace.

The fifth, as its name implies, is the shortest work on the disc.

The penultimate work is taken from the 7th volume of Busoni’s editions of Bach’s keyboard works and is a version of the Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 905). It represents, says the pianist, "Busoni’s signature on his completed effort".

Finally Busoni turns his attention to the music of ‘Carmen’. But this is no pot-pourri of tunes from the show, nor an operatic paraphrase. The conception is Lisztian drama in condensed form and Busoni infuses something of the demonic into what ultimately is a disconcerting experience.

The final item is the monumental transfiguration (in performance – for Busoni made few emendations to the original) of the C major organ Toccata of Bach (BWV 564) The culmination of the Preludio and the peroration of the Fugue, have such grandeur in performance such as this that the resonance of the woodpipes and the 32 ft stops are for the moment forgotten.

Jeni Slotchiver is an ardent disciple of Busoni – her playing is authoritative and the recorded sound excellent. Her advocacy is contained in 26 pages of closely printed notes – and it seems sometimes that the music illuminates the notes rather than the other way around. It is a persuasive performance – and one looks to the next disc with considerable interest.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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