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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Elegien, Sieben neue Klavierstücke (1907/1909) [44:06]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750) Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004 (arr. for piano (1897) by Busoni) [16:07]
David Rubinstein (piano)
rec. 13 April 2007, details of venue not supplied. DDD
MUSICUS 1001 [60:30]
Experience Classicsonline


As recently as 25 years ago, Ferruccio Busoni was still seen as the younger member of the Bach/Busoni partnership. His arrangements of the master, and others, were seen as anachronisms and consigned to oblivion as un-PC in the music world. To that extent they were seen as belonging with arrangements by Stokowski and others. Busoni then started to make his own way in the world and, fortunately for us, his arrangements - and those of Stokowski and others - are now rehabilitated and enjoyed without question, except, perhaps, amongst the purists.
 
This CD shows us both sides of Busoni’s art.
 
Busoni was the master pianist of his age and it is said that he could hold an audience spellbound with the concentration of his interpretation. The same could be said of his own post-1900 compositions.
 
After writing using the tried and tested 19th century models, Busoni broke free into a radical new harmonic and technical world. The Sieben Elegien can be seen as the start of his modernism. In general this music is dark and brooding, full of a sense of foreboding; stark unisons, strange shifts of tonality, sometimes with the tonality totally obscured. A restrained use of dissonance colours this music. The Elegien is not just a tour de force for the pianist but a tour de force of composition; Busoni understood this and wrote to composer Jose Vianna da Motta, “The Elegies signify a milestone in my development. Almost a transformation … I have expressed the very essence of myself in the Elegies”. Indeed he had.
 
Five of the pieces are based on already existing music and two are totally new compositions. The set starts with one of the new compositions, Nach der Wendung, Recueillement (After the Turning Point, Self communion) which is surely the composer’s admission that he was moving into new realms and aspects of composition. Truly a musical manifesto. All’Italia! In modo napoletano (To Italy! In Neopolitan Style) is a thorough reworking of music from his Piano Concerto. Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir…Choralvorspiel (My Soul is afraid and has its hopes on Thee, Chorale Prelude) is the other truly original composition in the set. Based on a hymn tune, Allein Gott in der Hoh’  sei Ehr (To God alone in the heights be praised) often used by his beloved J S Bach this is a Chorale Prelude unlike any other. Perhaps rather oddly, Busoni used this music as the opening section of his Fantasia Contrappuntistica in 1910. The next two Elegies are based on music from the Turandot Suite, which was used as incidental music for a production of Gozzi’s play in 1911, which in turn Busoni turned into an opera in 1917. The main theme of Turandots Frauengemach Intermezzo (Turandot in the Women’s Quarters), Turandot being as Chinese a subject as there could be, is Greensleeves! Busoni dedicated each of the Elegien to a different pianist and the dedicatee of Turandots Frauengemach was Polish-American Michael von Zadora, who played to the composer as he lay on his deathbed. Die Nachtlichen Walzer (Nocturnal Shadows – Waltz) is just that, a waltz in shadows. The penultimate piece Erscheinung – Notturno (Apparition - Nocturne) is a reworking of music from his first opera Die Brautwahl (The Bride’s Choice) which Busoni was working on at the same time as the Elegien. The final Elegy, Berceuse (Lullaby), is probably the best known of the set but not in the version for solo piano. It started life as a piece for small orchestra, Berceuse élégiaque – Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter (Elegiac Lullaby – The Man’s Cradle Song at his Mother’s Coffin), and Busoni transcribed it for piano after the first six Elegien had been published and later added it to the set.
 
What an astonishingly varied set of pieces the Elegien is! And what a challenge it sets for the pianist. The concentration needed to understand the music is matched only by the immense virtuosity required to play it. But despite the quite often dense, almost orchestral textures Busoni employs, the music is laid out quite clearly for the two hands – even if, at times, it sounds as if four hands are at work. A lesser pianist could find the music to be bass heavy and thus obscure the argument with the thick accompaniment, Rubinstein rises to the occasion, throws himself into the music and gives an excellent performance – with a subtle and judicious use of rubato – by turns virtuosic and extrovert, delicate, melancholic and regretful. 
 
The transcription of Bach’s great Chaconne in D minor is well known so all I need to say is that Rubinstein essays it with the aplomb and rubato he employs for the Elegien.
 
The recorded sound is clear but takes a little getting used to. It sounds as if the piano is situated in a large hall and the engineers have allowed a bit too much of the ambience of the empty room to encroach into the recorded sound. At the start you can almost believe you are sitting, listening, in an empty swimming pool, not a particularly big one it must be said, but the ear soon adjusts and the music can be heard clearly and with a wide dynamic range, but lacking a true pianissimo.
 
Now for my only moan, and anyone who has read my pieces will probably know what is coming. The Elegien ends in total repose on a chord of C major with an added ninth. A most beautiful sound and I don’t want to have my reveries interrupted by the loud chord of D minor which heralds the start of the Chaconne. The Elegien should be allowed to fade into infinity; I don’t want to hear anything after it. When will record companies realise that the music is what is important on the disk and not how well they can fill it? I accept that the Chaconne is basically a fill-up for the Elegien, but it would have been better placed at the start, and not the end, of the disk.
 
A fine disk of, possibly, Busoni’s most approachable piano work in the modern style, in performances worthy of the music.
 
Bob Briggs
 



 


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