Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) looked both to the future - in a written essay
from 1907 he suggests how music might develop with microtones and electronics
- and to the past. He revered Bach and Mozart. Busoni's mature musical language
is a mix of classical foundation while enveloping new developments. He was
aware of and embraced what Schoenberg was doing.
What, for convenience, I'll term as Busoni's compositional schizophrenia,
coalesced into a very distinctive voice. His Italian father and German mother
may have given him the polarity between warmth and lyricism, and formality
and highbred thinking; the latter intensified by his German training. In
addition, he was a virtuoso pianist - Claudio Arrau, late in life, said that
Busoni was the greatest pianist he had ever heard - one attracted to Lisztian
bravura, Bachian foundation and Mozartian clarity.
His six Sonatinas reflect these inputs. Written between 1910 and 1920, they
might be considered a musical diary in that they offer a snapshot of his
compositional thinking during an ever-developing decade of expressional identity.
This was a decade that lead up to his early death and unfinished opera, Doktor
Faust. Faust's subject of seeking knowledge and experience, and new futures
was central to Busoni himself.
In all the music on this CD, Busoni's clarity of thought is evident, even
when he is extending harmonic possibilities, experimenting with music's 'divine'
expression, and communing, possibly, with a mystical deity, possibly God,
maybe the Devil, perhaps both - or something occult-manifested, which he
had an interest in. These ambiguities though shouldn't be too dominant is
assessing his music.
From his rather conventional, but attractive, early works, Busoni's balancing
of tradition and experimentation created a distinctive, personal and fascinating
corpus of music. There's nothing else quite like the hypnotically beautiful
'Sarabande' from Doktor Faust - an otherworldly creation of exposited
existentialism. His piano music also probes the boundaries of reality.
After the First Sonatina's Mozartian elegance and Bachian underpinning, which
Busoni chisels away at as he begins to unleash Lisztian tidal-waves of sound
(thus Busoni is encapsulated in Sonatina Brevis, ironically the longest
of the six!), Sonatina Seconda (1912) comes as a huge shock. Although
harmonically grounded, the sheer unpredictability of this brief masterpiece,
contrasted with the sense of Busoni's absolute control of boundary-pushing,
is fantastically absorbing. Late Liszt meets Schoenberg might sum it up,
but that would be to overlook Busoni's individuality, his working things
out for himself - the staccato outburst and ensuing rhythmic counterpoint
from 0'50" reminds me of Tippett (only seven at the time)! Pontinen invests
more fantasy into his reading than Geoffrey Tozer (CHANDOS CHAN 9394) - 9'44"
against Tozer's 8'02" (my timings, not the booklets') - and, aided by a closer,
more detailed recording, examines the music closely, revealing its modernist
tendencies rather more comprehensively.
Ad usum infantis - Sonatina No. 3 (1915) - returns to a classical
simplicity - uncomplicated and delightful. No. 4 (1917, In diem nativitatis
Christi MCMXVII) is the least interesting of the set, I think. An initially
'pure' snow-white Christmas scene, which becomes restless, is halted by a
chorale before a more agitated 'dance', which dissipates into a restrained
commentary on what has gone before.
Sonatinas 5 and 6 are based on other composers' music. The Fifth (1918) -
Sonatina Brevis "in signo Joannis Sebastiani Mahni" - is a free re-working
of Bach's D minor Fantasy and Fugue, possibly an attempt, on Busoni's part,
to improve music, that may not be by Bach, which the booklet note suggests
has 'many errors and weaknesses'. As re-thought by Busoni, the work's profile,
irrespective of whoever originally composed it, is heightened because of
Busoni's harmonic overlay, his re-signing of it, and his re-creativity.
No. 6, Kammerfantasie super Carmen, takes Bizet as its starting-point,
a medley of the opera's familiar tunes; it's not a standard paraphrase though,
for although Bizet's melodies are intact and recognisable, Busoni - his own
figuration and harmonic imprint always discernible - lucidly elaborates beyond
the standard formula of a concert showpiece.
Roland Pontinen's affection for Carmen matches Busoni's interest in it.
Throughout this CD, Pontinen proves to be a subtle, sensitive and perceptive
guide through this intriguing music. He's well recorded too.
The four-movement Indian Diary is contemporary with Sonatina No. 3,
and shows a similar concern for clarity as Busoni utilises 'Motifs of America's
Redskins' into his studies (Busoni was living in the States). Go straight
to the third for a wonderful tune, one that reminds of Dvorák, a 'New
World' allusion of course, but one can imagine him delighting in it.
Finally, the Toccata, concurrent with the final Sonatina, is overtly
virtuosic and deeply contemplative, its final stretches offer a presage of
rigorous Hindemith, and is a piece much admired by Alfred Brendel (Philips
issued a Brendel recording some while ago - only on LP? - as part of a 'live
and previously unissued' recital, which to my chagrin I cannot locate). Pontinen
matches the technical demands and searches out Busoni's emotional recesses.
I'm not aware that Pontinen has previously recorded Busoni; if CPO wish to
follow this CD, then a coupling of Fantasia contrappuntistica and
Elegien would be very welcome.