> Ferruccio Busoni [JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Orchestral Suite No. 2 ’Geharnischte Suite’, Op. 34a
Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42
Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra, Op. 48*
Sarabande and Cortège, Op. 51 (Two Studies for Doktor Faust)

Tanzwalzer, Op. 53
John Bradbury: clarinet*
BBC Philharmonic/Neeme Järvi
Recorded March 2001, Manchester, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 9920 [69:54]


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Some years ago a distinguished music professor said to me, "You must go and see Doktor Faust at English National Opera - you'll hear a second rank composer at the height of his powers". Backhanded though this compliment may seem, it was clearly conveyed with a spirit admiration and perhaps a tinge of surprise.

What Busoni had in common with many composers we might categorise as second rank was possession of an awesome armoury of technical skills (witness Richard Strauss - he even described himself as such, i.e. second rate but very good). Whilst I would not want to claim that Busoni is quite at Strauss’s level as a composer, like Strauss he could, on occasions, legitimately brush shoulders with the great.

For the majority of the music loving public at large I would suggest that Busoni is probably either not known at all or known only for the odd piano arrangement of someone else’s music. This is not deserved state of affairs and here we have disc that in some small way may make a contribution to putting things right.

As you would expect from a composer who was a great pianist, the focus of much of his output was on music for piano. Nevertheless, there is a significant amount of orchestral and vocal music as well as half a dozen stage works in addition to Doktor Faust. The Two Studies for Doktor Faust on this disc provide a link between Busoni's orchestral music and his late, unfinished operatic masterpiece.

The Studies, together with the other four works here, display an eclecticism that you would expect from a well travelled composer who was born an Italian, lived most of his life in Germany and married a Swedish woman in Moscow.

The OrchestralArmour – plated’ Suite is the earliest work here and the most substantial. It is the study of a military hero and predates the much more famous, egocentrically autobiographical, domestic hero of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben by a couple of years. In spite of the opportunity the subject matter offers, Busoni manages not to overdo rhetoric even in the War Dance and Assault movements, and as so often in Busoni, there is a suggestion of an underlying sombreness of mood. It is a well proportioned work given a most convincing rendering by the BBC Philharmonic, although I would have welcomed a little more punch and abandon in the two movements mentioned above.

The Clarinet concertino provides considerable contrast, a relaxed work of dancing, translucent textures. It was a revelation to me since it had hitherto passed me by. Anthony Beaumont, in the booklet notes, points to its affinity with Strauss,s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera in which Strauss used chamber textures to evoke the world of commedia dell’ arte. What astonished me though was how even closer it sounds to Strauss’s Duett Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon and Strings, a work it predates by thirty years. There are even distinct melodic similarities and Busoni matches the deft lightness of instrumentation that Strauss found in his later years. John Bradbury, the orchestra’s principal clarinettist, handles the solo part lovingly in a fine performance of a really delightful work.

The Berceuse élégiaque, sub-titled A man’s cradle song at his mother’s bier, inhabits a quite different sound world, one that is nearer to French impressionism. Busoni wrote it as a moving response to the devastating loss of his mother in 1909 and in it creates a dream world that is captured with great subtlety by Järvi as woodwinds wind over muted strings.

Even in the four movements of the Tanzwalzer Busoni carries into their dance world a disconcerting pathos which lends gravitas to a piece that would otherwise be regarded as "light".

Busoni’s orchestral music gets another boost with the coincidental release of a disc by Naxos that includes two of the pieces here. The Hong Kong Philharmonic play well under their conductor Samuel Wong and if you want the Turandot Suite, then it is a bargain buy. However, the playing of the BBC Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi is altogether warmer and serves the music with a conviction that makes the Chandos disc a winner and strikes a fine blow for the Busoni cause.

John Leeman

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