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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in E minor Op. 29 (1890) [26:38]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor Op. 36a (1898-1900) [32:56]
Four Bagatelles Op. 28 (1888) [6:53]
Joseph Lin (violin); Benjamin Loeb (piano)
rec. The Country Day School, King City, Ontario, Canada, 1-4 August 2005. DDD.
NAXOS 8.557848 [66:27] 

In my review of the Naxos disc featuring Busoni’s songs, I highlighted the label’s ongoing commitment to exploring this performer-composer’s output. I also questioned what we should accept as Busoni’s most representative compositions. Ultimately I found the songs unsatisfying fare. This led me to suggest that Busoni’s virtuoso piano transcriptions or operas might be where his compositional heart lay. The latest Naxos release concentrates on his writing for violin and piano duet. Perhaps this will offer further insights into a singularly complex yet inexplicably ignored compositional voice.

The performances on this disc sound to be of somewhat higher quality than those on the song disc. Joseph Lin is a committed violinist and Benjamin Loeb has his work cut out with the equally demanding piano part.

The First Sonata clearly demonstrates the influence of Austro-German Romantic composition upon Busoni throughout its three movements. Richard Whitehouse, in his accompanying notes, says the work is “untypical” of its composer, but comments that “its musical attractions are yet considerable”. Major aspects of Lin and Loeb’s performance draw the listener into the work. The momentum of movement 1 indicates just the right balance of mood between determination and cheerful agreement. The second movement is more withdrawn in character but a richly lyrical vein of writing is not sidelined by either composer or performers. The closing movement reverts towards the sound world of the first, but proves slightly more driven in overall terms. Throughout the work, the natural recorded balance captures both performers faithfully. The piano might appear at a slight distance momentarily, but together the two artists present a strong reading of this imposing music, fully aware of the influences that bear upon it.

The Second Sonata, which Busoni considered his “real op. 1”, can sound to an extent like an inverted version of the first, having lengthy slow outer movements framing a brief yet unabashedly virtuosic presto middle movement. The first movement finds Lin’s sinuous delivery of the violin line often heard against a dappled piano backdrop, from which both parts grow in intensity without ever becoming over-forced. The tarantella second movement is a brilliant flash in the pan, calling for playing of technical command from both players. This is achieved with flow and care in shaping both parts, so that not only major episodes of grandeur register but the half-light seconds of wit also do. Without a break, it’s straight into the third movement – a near twenty-minute theme and variations. The theme is drawn from Busoni’s beloved Bach: “Wie wohl ist mir”, a chorale found in the Anna Magdalena notebook. The variations explore a great contrast of moods and form, from the ruminative to the more demonstrative forms of march, moto perpetuo and fugue. The closing coda might be somewhat subdued compared to all that has gone before but it achieves a sense of suggestive integration with the opening movements to fully complete the work.

The Naxos disc does not present the first release of Busoni’s violin sonatas on CD. Rob Barnett favourably reviewed a 2004 release on the Finlandia label which included a youthful sonata from the ten year old composer alongside the more mature works. Naxos could have accommodated this early work on their disc too had they wished to, in addition to the Bagatelles they have provided. Slight they might be in length, but not in terms of the technical skill required. Stylistically they form a diverse set of character pieces which underline once again Busoni’s skill in adapting the material of others to suit his own ends.  Across time and place one is taken on a dizzying tour of fleeting impressions that are confidently realized in the playing of Lin and Loeb.

A disc full of enjoyable material executed with style. A true Naxos bargain.

Evan Dickerson 



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