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Ferrucio Busoni – Piano Rolls
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) - Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Chaconne in D minor
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Feux Follets
La Chasse
Polonaise No.2 in E major
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Twenty-Four Preludes Op.28
Ferrucio Busoni - reproduced via a Steinway Duo Art Player Piano in the Concert Artist Studios Cambridge


Piano Rolls are once again a hot topic. International Piano Quarterly ran a long article with an interview with the late Ronald Smith in which the system was evaluated hereby leading to a spin off CD, offering aural "supportive evidence". Naxos is up to volume 3 in its Welte-Mignon Piano Roll series; the Ampico Rolls are now being extensively released elsewhere and smaller companies such as Pierian have also issued fine sets – in their case collating the roll legacy of an important pianist who otherwise left behind no disc evidence of her playing, Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler.

Busoni of course did record, sparsely, in London for Columbia. His discs have been available on Music and Arts for some time and Naxos has also recently brought out its transfers. So we do know to an extent the nature – partial though it may be, a number of discs were never issued – of his pianism as captured at that time on acoustic disc.

Since the question of the authenticity of the piano roll – as an artefact that accurately represents playing – is one that has occupied almost every reviewer (including me) who cares to cast his fourpence, it would be better to direct you in passing to some of my comments relating to the Welte-Mignon system in another review;

These are in fact some of the issues that John Hollis addresses in his notes to Concert Artist’s release, which cite Serge Krisch, a Busoni pupil, Mark Hambourg, Alfred Cortot, Joyce Hatto and others, very entertainingly as well. Obviously the problems remain, even though the Duo Art rolls, reproduced here on a Steinway Duo Art Player Piano are rendered very sympathetically. Unlike other releases one could mention, the action is noiseless and the piano is in tune. The acoustic is good. One can listen to the rolls with pleasure. The performances of course clearly embrace both the panoply of Busoni’s eccentricity and grandiose intemperance (especially, unfortunately, toward Chopin about whom he remained imperturbably antagonistic) and also the vagaries of the system itself. The absurdly jerky C major Prelude and the same dynamics that inform the G major, the risibly choppy left hand and legato right et al (no correlation between them) are all astonishing documents – but of what, well that would be harder to say.

The non natural rubato in the F sharp major is hardly an isolated feature of course but the incredibly stormy dénouement must say at least something concrete about Busoni’s volcanic pictorial and colouristic imagination.

In fact it’s the Liszt, more so than the Bach-Busoni, that may open up a more reasonable channel to Busoni’s playing. La Chasse sounds considerably more vibrant even though the Chaconne (asynchronous chording as ever) does manage to sound almost dainty and wry in places – something I’d never imagined possible. And in its way remarkable to hear.

Busoni’s rolls should certainly be heard and absorbed; the discs provide the corrective evidence necessary to put the rolls into a more lucid perspective. These thoughtful and expert restorations are particularly effective and are recommended.

Jonathan Woolf

Concert Artist complete catalogue available from MusicWeb International


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