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 Orchestral ‘Armour – 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
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.