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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Fantasia Contrappuntistica a (1910; rev. 1922) [27.40]
Improvisation on the Bach Chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, O Freund der Seele” (1916) [14.41]
Duettino Concertante nach Mozart b [K459] (1916?) [7.23]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasie [in f] für eine Orgelwalze [K 381] (arr. Busoni 1922) [8.19]
Allan Schiller and John Humphries (duo pianists)
rec. Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England, 8 September 2003.
Notes in English and Deutsch.
NAXOS 8.557443 [58.04]

Comparison Recordings of Fantasia Contrappuntistica:
Geoffrey Douglas Madge, (solo version) Philips [OP]
Isabel and Jürg von Vintschger, pianos. [ADD] Jecklin-Disco JD 579-2
Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, pianos CBS LP MS 6891
Nicolas Danby, organ Virtuoso LP TPLS 13024
When Ferruccio Busoni announced to the world that he was going to finish Bach’s final unfinished fugue, nobody had ever heard the original work since the first public performance of Bach’s “Unperformable” Art of the Fugue would not occur until a year after Busoni’s death. The work was generally considered a scholarly puzzle, some may even have thought that Bach deliberately left the final fugue unfinished as a challenge to future musicians to equal or better him. The first draft of the solo piano version was written at the behest of Bernard Ziehn and Wilhelm Mittelschulte, in 1910 during a concert tour of America, between Chicago and Dayton, Ohio. Busoni himself described the work as “between a composition by César Franck and the Hammerklavier Sonata.”
The first edition was published in New York in 1910, a revised edition in Germany later that same year. The organ arrangement was by Mittelschulte in 1912. In 1922, when Busoni published his completed effort, the work had become a fugal fantasia based on the Bach work but not in any sense working out a completion. He worked and reworked the composition, and the two piano version heard here is generally considered the best one. Busoni worked his completion into variations on the chorale “Ehre zei Gott in der Höhe,” but curiously neither Tovey nor Busoni seem to have noticed that the motif of Art of the Fugue is “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”. Both Tovey and Busoni - and Helmut Walcha - rework Bach using harmonies that only became popular more than a hundred years after Bach’s death. Perhaps the final word on completing Bach’s fugue will be written by Erich Bergel c and Paul Jordan d.
But Busoni’s public relations campaign was so effective that Donald Francis Tovey, who was working on his own completion of Bach’s fugue, made a point of avoiding the Busoni work until his own was finished. He needn’t have bothered, there is no relationship between their two approaches.
The von Vintschgers play exactly the same program as Schiller and Humphries, however they play it in the order Busoni himself suggested, to form a gigantic sonata for two pianos, whereas Schiller and Humphries move the last movement of the putative “sonata,” the Fantasia Contrappuntistica to opening position rather than the finale. The von Vintschgers are recorded more closely, which allows at times a feeling of intimacy, and play with more poetry and drama, attested to by their significantly longer timings on all works except the Mozart. The von Vintschgers preserve more of Busoni’s lyricism and grand gestures, whereas Schiller and Humphries reveal more of the intellectual structure of the works, and include no small amount of lyricism and drama of their own. Schiller and Humphries are recorded with a little more distance which allows them to expand the heroic qualities of the music; they play with more zest and flourish, but both sets of players are equally skilled and virtuosic. It is entirely a matter of taste as to which you would prefer.
The Serkin/Goode performance from the 1966 Marlboro Festival eschews any kind of feeling or beauty; it is the ultimately analytical version, even to the point of having the two pianos clearly separated one to each channel. It is the one to have if you want to follow the score. The young Glenn Gould would have loved it.
In the end Busoni’s genius turned out to be sharply limited and he worked and worked over a few compositions, content to leave a handful of masterpieces to honor his name, which they most certainly do. Fantasia Contrappuntistica is such a masterpiece, as is the Second Violin Sonata featuring the variations on the Bach chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, O Freund der Seele,” of which this piano work is a later, much reworked, version. Also his Piano Concerto, and his operas, and the memory of various students who with little success have attempted to reproduce the astounding sound Busoni could wring from a piano, the secret of which did not survive him.

Paul Shoemaker


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a. Full title: Choral-variationen über «Ehre zei Gott in der Höhe» gefolgt von einer QuadrupelFuge über ein Bachsches Fragment.
b. The finale of the Piano Concerto #19 in F, K 459 (1784), which contains occasional quotes from the Magic Flute.
c. Bachs Letzte Fuge, Erich Bergel, Max Brockhaus Musikverlag, 1985.
d. In his completed organ performance of the final fugue on Brioso CD.


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