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Ferruccio Busoni and his Pupils
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Prelude and Fugue no.1 in C (from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Book I) [03:57], Chorale-Prelude Ė Rejoice, Beloved Christians (arr. Busoni) [01:55]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Ecossaise in E flat (arr. Busoni) [01:57]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Nocturne in F sharp, op.15/2 [03:34], Prelude in A, op.28/7 [01:04], Etude in G flat op.10/5 (two versions) [01:45, 01:53], Etude in E minor, op.25/5 [03:24]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Rhapsody no.13 in A minor [06:15]
Ferruccio Busoni (piano)
Recorded 27th February 1922, London
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Chaconne in D minor, from Partita no. 2 for violin (arr. Busoni) [12:15]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Albumblatt no.3: in der Art eines Choralvorspiels [04:40], Elegy no.2: AllíItalia! In modo napolitano [04:56]
Egon Petri (piano)
Recorded in New York, June 1945 (Bach) and London 27th September 1938 (Busoni)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Sonatina no.3: ad usum infantis [05:39], Sonatine no.5: in diem nativitatis Christi [06:02], Sonatine no.6: Chamber Fantasy on Themes from Bizetís Carmen [06:18]
Michael von Zadora (piano)
Recorded 1929 (Sonatina 6) and 1938 (others)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Indian Diary, Book 1: Allegro affettuoso, un poco agitato [02:35], Vivace [01:46], Andante [03:22], Maestoso ma andando [02:45]
Edward Weiss (piano)
Recorded 1952
Transfers by Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.110777 [76:02]


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An aura of mystique surrounds the name of Ferruccio Busoni which is out of all proportion to the surviving evidence of his playing, let alone the tenuous hold his compositions have on the repertoire. The latter have their fervent admirers yet somehow not one has ever quite "caught on". His Bach arrangements were both the making and the undoing of his reputation. An American socialite lady, introduced at a party to "Mr. Busoni", shrieked with delight, "Oh say, not the great Mr. Bach-Busoni!". One is tempted to say it served him right.

Our greatest evidence of his formidable powers as a pianist remains the numerous descriptions of his concerts made by well-informed musicians and, in common with most pianists of that epoch, we are obliged to judge him on the strength of short pieces alone. In view of his fame one might have expected more recordings to have been made, and indeed more were. His first sessions were in London in 1919. He hated every minute of it and for technical reasons none of the discs were published. In 1922 he tried again and on this occasion, too, more was set down than could eventually be issued. In many similar cases it has been possible, at a distance of time, to recover rejected takes of this kind, which usually remain in the company archives; they would undoubtedly have filled out the picture a little, whatever their defects, but alas, they were destroyed in a fire at the Columbia factory in the early 1920s, so the published sides are all we have. In spite of Busoniís unease with the recording process his love of Bach led him to offer to record the 48 Preludes and Fugues complete, but the idea was rejected. I should add that I am relying heavily on Jonathan Summersí excellent note for all this information.

Various transfers have been made over the years of this small clutch of Busoni recordings, and most have similarly had the idea of filling out the CD with performances by some of Busoniís pupils. I imagine it is safe to say that none have been cheaper than Naxosís and, while I donít have any others to hand, I really canít imagine recordings of this vintage ever sounding any better. So for a modest price we can glean at least some idea of his powers and it is at any rate clear that he had a warm, limpid, rounded and somehow noble tone, effortlessly brilliant fingers and a general lack of ostentation. Obviously these old recordings treat his forte passages less kindly.

The Bach Prelude is taken fairly swiftly and flowingly until a point about three quarters through (b.23) where he suddenly decides to bring out the surprisingly elliptical harmonic process (this was the bar which so disturbed Gounod that he substituted it with two bars of his own in his infamous "Ave Maria") with a strong accent in the bass and a drastic slowing down. From here to the end he indulges in various pieces of rhetorical point-making which sound very odd (and frankly unmotivated) today. The Fugue begins gently and with luminous textures, but at times it slows down for no apparent reason. The very large rallentando in the middle may be classed as an exaggeration rather than a distortion since the fugue does actually divide into two sections (something which is perfectly obvious to the listener without pointing it out in this way) but the equally great rallentando towards the end is surely heinous, for while three voices are cadencing a fourth is trying to enter with the theme and gets left stranded.

The Chorale-Prelude goes at an extremely vivacious tempo which shows off Busoniís clean fingers but makes nonsense of the music. The 16th-notes here have a melodic value, they are not just a meaningless wash of sound, and whatever would a tempo like this sound like on the original instrument, the organ, in a church acoustic? Having played the piece through very lightly and, in its way, delightfully, he evidently found it too short (which it wouldnít have been at a proper tempo) so he repeats the second part (no repeat is marked) building it up as a crescendo and rounding off with a few forte bars of his own.

The Beethoven Ecossaises are taken at a lick which reduces these charming miniatures Ė which Beethoven specified should be played "nicht zu schnell", "not too fast" Ė to mere gabble, but the Chopin Nocturne is to be taken very seriously indeed. In this piece at least I cannot agree with the London critic who wrote in 1919, expressing a commonly held view, that "he submits Chopin to an iron intellectual discipline, eliminating every hint of waywardness, of improvisation, of tenderness". True, it is somewhat slow and almost Beethovenian in its gravity, but it is also deeply felt, beautifully sung and the fioriture sound very improvisatory to me.

The Prelude is more questionable, taken unusually fast and almost skittishly. He then plays it a second time, somewhat more strongly, after which he uses a phrase from it to improvise a link to the "Black Key" Study, which provides a beautiful cascade of light sounds. For some reason he recorded this Study again separately, a shade more deliberately on the first page but thereafter almost identical. The E minor Study is quite weird, beginning very slowly and flapping around like a drunk grasshopper. As a result the middle section, which Chopin indicated is to be played slower, has to be played faster, proving that the tempi for the outer sections must be wrong.

The Liszt is the nearest we have to a large scale piece and it is an impressively musical performance. Though Busoni does not hold back when barnstorming is inevitable, he seeks out the musicís delicacy wherever possible, perhaps even too much so; more recently Brendel has shown that it is possible to treat these Rhapsodies musically without curtailing their gipsy spirit. Still, this and the Nocturne do at least give us some inkling of Busoniís powers.

In view of the masterís own waywardness it is interesting that the common factor between the three pupils who fill up the disc is a straightforward, unexaggerated approach, together with a realisation of the gravity which lies at the root of Busoniís music, even in an apparent showpiece like the Carmen Fantasy.

That said, the three seem to have been arranged in decreasing order of interest. Egon Petri is the best-known, of course, and a commanding figure in his own right. The fierceness of the 1945 New York recording does not present his forcefully direct performance of the Chaconne in its most favourable light but the 1938 recordings fall more easily on the ear. The Albumblatt is a Bach-haunted piece with a strange individuality all its own and the "Elegy" actually builds into a bravura exploitation of Neapolitan themes which yet maintains a typically Busonian gravitas.

Michael von Zadora shows less personality, but he also has less interesting music to play; the Sonatina no.3 would be rather low on my list of pieces with which to persuade the kiddies of the delights of classical music and no.5 is dolefully un-Christmassy, but he makes a dashing job of the Carmen Fantasy. I doubt if Edward Weissís heavy-handed, technically barely adequate, performances enshrine any particular message for future interpreters of his chosen pieces. This is a case where a good modern pianist would be far preferable and the recording is overloaded and unpleasant.

One would like to go to a disc like this and say "so this is what it was all about"; as I have made it plain Ė and Jonathan Summersís notes are very honest about the drawbacks of Busoniís recorded legacy Ė the surviving evidence just doesnít tell us all that much. But in view of the aura surrounding Busoniís name it may still be worth satisfying your curiosity, especially when it costs so little to do so.

Christopher Howell



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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Hallť
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Nimbus
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Redcliffe
Sheva
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