One great joy of record collecting is the discovery
of an unsuspected masterpiece. Busoniís Berceuse élégiaque
is one such. Its eleven minutes encapsulate a remarkable restraint concealing
huge power. This is a very big work which never rises above mezzo forte
and is over in less time than a Rossini overture. Busoni derived it
from a piano piece written earlier in the same year. In it he poured
out his grief at the death of his mother. Yet like the Sarabande
and Cortège of ten years later, this is not a romantic post
Mahlerian outburst. This is music of the utmost objectivity. It reminds
me of another great objectivist, Carl Nielsen, who, in, for example,
The Inextinguishable, expressed momentous issues with Socratic
detachment. Busoni was a friend of Nielsen (the latterís 2nd
Symphony is dedicated to Busoni) and they had a deep and mutual respect.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why.
Busoni never finished his great opera Doktor Faust
and its gestation occupied him for many years. The Two Studies for
Doktor Faust Op.51 of (1919) were not mere fragmentary workings
out, though the fragments were reused in Faust, but complete
and mature studies that stand alone and apart from that opera.. When
he died in 1924 he still had not finished his operatic magnum opus,
and the world gained yet another unfinished masterpiece. Oddly, given
the contents of this disc, it was only two years later that a still
more famous, though not greater, unfinished masterpiece was unveiled,
Pucciniís Turandot. He too had succumbed to his final illness
without composing the conclusion. We are perhaps fortunate that Busoniís
opera was finished with more subtlety by his pupil Philipp Jarnach than
the tub thumping conclusion that Alfano utilised for Puccini. But I
digress. The Sarabande and Cortège are magnificent movements,
the first noble but uncertain, the second spooky and malevolent, virtually
studies of Faust and of Mephistopheles. The excellent (though oddly
incomplete - see below - notes) remind one that Busoni was pursuing
an experiment in "ambiguous tonality" (another link with Nielsen)
and in all three of the pieces mentioned so far one is never left to
settle into an emotional response. At every turn we are disturbed by
The longest piece on this outstanding Naxos issue is,
appropriately, the Turandot Suite which Busoni completed in 1905.
He composed it as a response to reading Gozziís play but it was later
used as incidental music some six years later in a staging of Turandot
by Max Reinhardt in Berlin. I am a little amazed that the otherwise
excellent liner notes by Richard Whitehouse donít mention that a further
ten years later Busoni created an opera from this same music. It gained
its first performance in a double bill with Arlecchino in 1917.
The suite, even sans voices, is superb. It has sinister moments that
would not be out of place in Doktor Faust - Altoumís March
and the Night Waltz for example. Turandotís March is a
long and very complex movement that speaks volumes about her character.
In many ways this is as impressive as Puccini, though very different.
Both composers were clearly drawn to the sinister aspects of this bizarre
and cruel story. I suppose if I am forced to choose, Iíd give Puccini
the winnerís medal for his fantastic tunes. Busoniís masterwork was
Faust, not Turandot.
I have not mentioned the magnificent contribution of
the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Iíd expected them to be at home with the
chinoiserie of Turandotís Dance and Song, but I was unprepared
for the superb quality of their strings. This has turned into a very
classy orchestra indeed, one which Samuel Wong, their recently appointed
Principal Conductor, has every right to be proud of. A magnificent achievement
all round. You have to buy this! More, please, Naxos!