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Busoni recalled. The 1941 New York commemorative concert
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Idomeneo Overture arranged by Ferruccio Busoni in 1918
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Indian Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (1915)
Sarabande and Cortège Op 51 (1918-19)
Violin Concerto in D Op 35a (1896-97)
Josef Szigeti recalls Busoni (from a talk given at Harvard University in 1965)
Egon Petri (piano)
Josef Szigeti (violin)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded live at Carnegie Hall, New York 28 December 1941
MUSIC AND ARTS CD 1052 [72.49]


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This New York commemorative concert was fortuitously recorded and the discs owned by the New England Conservatory of Music. Luckily there seem to have been at least two turntables in use because, despite the resultant pitch fluctuations there doesn’t sound to have been any loss of music. Pitch and other problems have been dealt with by Dimitrios Antsos and the whole production has been overseen by Maggi Payne. So, a caveat to begin with - there is the usual array of acetate scuffs and surface noise and obviously some sound constriction. As broadcasts go however, and this is a significant one, the fidelity is creditable.

It had been 75 years since Busoni’s birth and the concert was graced by a trio of musicians who had known him to varying degrees; Petri the longest, Szigeti who championed the Violin Concerto and also the Second Sonata and Mitropoulos who had been introduced to Busoni by Petri in Berlin in 1920. It was an idiosyncratic touch to open the concert with Busoni’s arrangement of the overture to Idomeneo. This was a work Busoni had only come across a couple of years before he met Mitropoulos but he set to work with enthusiasm, creating a concert suite comprising the Overture, Sacrificial scene and Festal March. The commemorative concert began with the Overture – boldly and vigorously etched. Egon Petri was perhaps the greatest of all Busoni’s followers and his contribution was the Indian Fantasy. Busoni’s interest had first been piqued as early as 1910 and the Indian Dairy appeared five years later – a set of four piano studies and also an orchestral study – whilst the Fantasy dates from 1913-15. Petri announces his credentials right from the opening section - glittering panache but intensely concentrated sound – but he’s equally a master of linearity in Busoni’s writing. The sectionality of the piece – its dance and lament profile and the hieratic barbarism sometimes unleashed – is compellingly coalesced in Petri’s hands, aided in no small measure by Mitropoulos’s shaping of the romantic interludes. Here he encourages some scintillatingly expressive string playing; sepulchral basses too. But it’s that G major song in the second section that most catches in the mind. Petri voices it with perfect delicacy and the orchestra answers with almost Dvořákian relish. The Vivamente section, pulsing and barbarous, with blaring brass and dance rhythms, survives even the relatively primitive recorded sound.

The Sarabande and Cortège came before the interval at the concert. The former is imbued here with an intense solemnity, highlit by its singular tread but also by those shafts of interior beauty. Mitropoulos certainly evokes the heady harmonic ambiguities of the latter where orchestral virtuosity does justice to the demands of rhythm and proper tone. Because the Two Movements from his Suite for Orchestra Geharnischte haven’t survived the recital ends with the Violin Concerto. This had been premiered by Henri Petri, father of Egon, in Berlin in 1897. Szigeti had first played it for Busoni in about 1912, the composer ruefully announcing that the work wasn’t as bad as he’d remembered it. We have other examples of Szigeti’s performances on record; a live RAI performance with Previtali from 1952 is also on Music and Arts and the commercial LP with the Little Orchestral Society under Scherman, from 1954, has appeared on Sony Classical CD. Back in 1941 Szigeti was on fine technical form, his tone characteristically steely but without the depletions that age and illness later wrought. I was especially touched by the way he darkened his lower strings for the elegiac passages and by his commanding intellectual strength. There’s a fine orchestral tremolando and good tuttis as well. In the central panel, where the soloist spins an unbroken line, Szigeti’s rapt intensity is memorable and there’s some good, crisp bowing in the finale where his playing is not burdened by portamenti. A charming snippet of his 1965 Harvard talk closes the disc.

This was a rare occasion in which two of Busoni’s special champions were joined by another of lesser intimacy but no less commitment. It has a historical frisson, manages to transcend mere associative allegiances and I found it exceptionally persuasive listening.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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