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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) arr. Busoni: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ (orig. 1850) [29:22]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) arr. Busoni: Andantino [9:35]
Fantasia Contrappuntistica (Edizione Definitiva 1910) [29’02]
Hamish Milne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 10-12 October 2007
HYPERION CDA67677 [71:27]


Experience Classicsonline

Hamish Milne was a tall and distinguished presence at the R.A.M. and instantly recognisable even to ignorant non-pianists such as myself when I was there in the 1980s. He has of course since had a remarkable if unconventional recording career, specialising in ‘unplayable’ work such as the sonatas of Medtner and including recordings of Bach transcriptions, so this new disc from Hyperion always promised to be a bit special. Over here in The Hague we had until recently another figure who ate such pieces for breakfast, Geoffrey Madge, and it is partly as a result of his influence on colleagues of mine with regard to Busoni that I particularly appreciate the chance to review this disc.

Even fans of serious romantic piano music often shy away from Ferrucio Busoni. Most will know the Bach Chaconne arrangement, but vast and complicated works such as the Fantasia contrappuntistica rarely appear on concert programmes. In fact, this piece is part of Busoni’s lifelong study of Bach, and based on The Art of Fugue. When listened to with Bach’s ‘last and greatest work’ in mind, most perceived difficulties fall away quite quickly. Agreed, there is a good deal more tricky chromaticism and virtuoso pianism in Busoni’s contrapuntal writing than in anything by Bach, but to my ears this is easier to cope with than, say, the grandest works of Franz Liszt. Part of the problem as a listener has been somewhat over-indulgent performances of this work in the past. My own reference has been that of the formidable Viktoria Postnikova on a 1991 Erato set which also includes the incredible Concerto op.39. Postnikova signs off after a timing of 43:40, so you have some idea of what’s going on already. Vastly florid pianism, pedal held down for long periods, rubato to the point at which the flow of the music seems to be struggling uphill and leaking over the sides of whatever container it is supposed to inhabit. This is a pianist’s view of Busoni the visionary, viewed from the extreme late-romantic-down, and now appearing rather gross and old-fashioned compared to Hamish Milne’s healthily sanguine baroque-up reading of the score. 

Returning to Milne, I like his lightness of touch in the piano ‘rumbling’ which goes on in the opening. Quite rightly he hears these as orchestral effects, like the booming of a gong – avoiding making the piano sound like a barrel organ or player-piano programmed by Mrs Mills. In essence, what Busoni does is introduce the possibilities in harmony for his day, and apply them to the advanced polyphonic techniques which Bach used in his Art of Fugue. Busoni held himself to strict rules, in which “new harmony could only arise naturally from a foundation of an extremely cultivated polyphony and establish a right for its appearance...” This is often more clearly audible than you might expect, and some of the more extreme moments arise simply as a result of Busoni’s through-working of his own invention in Bach’s polyphonic terms. Bach is quoted as well, his fugue style being introduced and distorted in a fascinatingly modern fashion in the Fugue I, which treads a fine line between parody and bizarre genius. The B-A-C-H moment which appears in the unfinished Contrapunctus XIV is introduced in Fugue III, and if you know point at which the music stops its ongoing, unheeding flow is quite disconcerting. While the music is pretty much continuous in the Fantasia Hyperion are to be applauded for introducing access points for each section. This makes it easier to know when you are talking about the mysterious, insinuating echo-version of the fugue subject in the Intermezzo, or the marvel of the developing contrapuntal complexity of the three subsequent variations, just over three minutes of endlessly fascinating composition. Milne makes sense of and communicates with ease even the most mind-mangling counterpoint, and quite incredibly manages to make it entertaining – not in a straw-boater slapstick fashion, but leading even mere mortals such as your friendly reviewer to believe that yes, one can understand this music, if one were really to put one’s mind to it. This may be a delusion, but if the illusion is an apparently real one then the trick has been a success. In fact, as I say, the difficulties are more often in ones preconceptions: anyone with an ear which can cope with or accept Shostakovich’s more complex fugues will have no trouble enjoying this magnificent musical edifice. 

The Liszt arrangement has been criticised for a lack of clarity in at least one performance, but this is not something I can say I experienced with Milne’s recording. There is actually a good proportion of fairly open sounding music in this piece, which was of originally written for organ and never transcribed for piano by Liszt himself. Milne’s own excellent booklet notes admit to ‘the grandeur, even bombast of Liszt’s conception’, but makes a claim for the piano arrangement that it gains over the organ original in terms of clarity - certainly in the likely environment and acoustic in which such complicated and ambitious music would be played. The meditative central Adagio is full of gorgeous progressions, and initially sounds the most like a transcription in need of development, up until the rippling arpeggios start doing just that about 3 minutes in. The sheer beauty of sound in the passage from 5:22 is a real treat, turning the piano almost into an organ in its own right. The final Fugue is remarkably effective on the piano, while having all of those high-romantic effects, what Milne points out as the ‘Mephisto-style’, full of high drama and passionate and turbulent churning. 

The ‘Aphorism on Mozart’ played here was part of a set written to celebrate Mozart’s 150th birthday. This one springs from the Andantino of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major K 271, and is interesting for its absence of the kind of pianistic effect for which Busoni is justly renowned. There is a fairly hefty but in-proportion cadenza in which Busoni lets his hair half-down, but for the most part this is a fairly accurate representation of Mozart’s movement, with a few of the orchestral ‘ripieni’ shortened, the repetitious conversational exchanges becoming meaningless on solo piano. 

As part of that canon of piano blockbusters with which you may be sparring, wondering whether to take the plunge, the Fantasia Contrappuntistica is probably less troublesome than you might imagine. I certainly found it easier to digest this time around than something like Schubert’s ‘Grand Duo’ Sonata D812. This is however in large part due to the skill, clarity and sheer musicianship of Hamish Milne. This is the first occasion I’ve responded to this piece in such a way, and it feels as if I’ve made a new friend. For sure, there are other versions, and some of them are no doubt very good indeed. Here however is one especially free of extra-musical pianistic nonsense. This is, if you like, a composer’s performance – one which conveys and expresses the force of the musical arguments to the full, but without the imposition of an added ‘creative personality’, a pianist who ‘interprets’. This is not to say that Hamish Milne has no musical personality or individualism, but to say that he plays Busoni the way it’s written, rather than the way anyone else thinks it should sound. As Busoni did, he takes the music back to Bach as a basis, rather than approaching it as ‘romantic’. If you’ve never tried this piece, or even if you have and couldn’t bear it, maybe the time has indeed come to hear how it should sound. 

Dominy Clements




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