> BUSONI Piano Music Volume 2 Harden 8555699 [CH]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Music, Vol. 2

J. S. Bach (transcribed Busoni): Chaconne for solo violin, B24, Etude en forme de variations, op. 17, K206, Variations on "Kommt ein Vogel geflogen", K222, Theme and Variations in C, K. 6, Inno Variations, K16, Variations and Fugue on Chopinís Prelude in C minor, op. 22, K.213
Wolf Harden (pianoforte)
Recorded 21-22.12.2000, St. Martinís Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire (UK)
NAXOS 8.555699 [68.55]


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In spite of powerful advocates, Busoni has never gained either that love of the public which may attach itself to only a few works but which nevertheless ensures that the composer is a household name, nor yet that trust which will lead a substantial band of followers to go "blindfold" to any work of his which happens to be performed. He is hard to pin down, and the ambivalence of his "musical nationality" Ė he was born in Italy of an Italian father and a mother with German ancestry and spent most of his life in Germany Ė provided both countries with a good excuse for leaving investigation of him to the other. He worked hard to get rid of the Bach-Busoni image and posthumously lip-service at least has acknowledged him as a composer in his own right. Of the works here, only the "Bach-Busoni" dates from later than his twentieth year, so it is surely unfair to emphasise too strongly that this is in fact the piece which stands most chance of being heard in concert programmes.

Perhaps the first five minutes find both arranger and pianist going a little cautiously, Busoni keeping to fairly "standard" transcription techniques and Harden inclined to play as if it were "real" Bach rather than a romantic dressing-up. Thereafter Busoniís invention expands notably, creating a striking array of romantic sounds (even verging on the Debussian at times, but how much Debussy did he know in 1892?) and Harden seems fired by it, playing with both command and real conviction. I did wonder at first if it wasnít all a little bass-heavy (whether due to pianist, instrument, acoustics or the recording itself, I couldnít quite decide), but I found this impression dispelled as the disc went on and my final verdict was of a rich yet not overbearing sound-quality.

The Etude en forme de variation begins rather nondescriptly but this, too, reveals unsuspected poetic depths later (it lasts 9 minutes), with some quite surprising harmonies suggesting an out-of-phase, overcast Brahms. Again, Harden gains strength with the music.

The humour of the Variations on Kommt ein Vogel geflugen, referred to in Richard Whitehouseís informative notes (in three languages), did not really come across to me but, again, I found some of the later variations fascinating. The C major Variations and the Inno Variations are very early indeed (1873 and 1874 respectively) and they remain fairly trite in their material, but the young boy showed a remarkable command of the piano.

The Chopin Variations are a pianistic feat for both composer and performer (commandingly brought off) but I hardly feel they are going to enter the regular repertoire. The early variations did nothing to convince me that Busoni was not elaborating gratuitously on a piece already complete in itself, but as he leaves the familiar contours of Chopinís theme behind it is easier to follow him. There are some poetic moments, particularly when Bach-Busoni seems only just round the corner, but also some banal ones, and in one variation "Mary had a little lamb" sounds to be not far away. This is an interesting disc, though I suggest that if Busoni enters the standard repertoire it will not be for any of the pieces here. Still, given the dedicated performances and rich recording it might be worth paying the modest Naxos to follow this series through, disc by disc as it comes out, and make up your own minds about this important but still controversial composer.

Christopher Howell

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