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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
The Six Sonatinas
Indianisches Tagebuch

Roland Pontinen (piano)
rec September 20-23, 1999, Kammermusikstudio des SWR, Stuttgart
CPO 999 702-2 [74.47] Mid-price

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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.

Colin Anderson


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