The visionary Busoni is perhaps,
for the unindoctrinated, more readily
accessible from his writings than in
his music. I might even substitute ‘ascetic’
for ‘aesthetic’ in several instances
where I experience occasional bewilderment
at the restraint concealing deep matters
(though expressed with a supreme command
of traditional technique) – the "deceptively
calm surface " which conceals cross-references.
A quest for the ‘essence’ of music must
traverse both familiar and unfamiliar
lands. "If ... he demands of his
hearers that they shall learn his new
idiom with as much sweat and anxiety
and as many sleepless hours as he has
given to its formation he will have
to overcome the almost personal hatred
his demands are bound to engender."
(Busoni in ‘Down among the dead men’
Bernard Van Dieren. OUP, 1935)
If the essence remains
elusive surely a quest for the ‘visionary’
in Busoni is less difficult today than
when that was written? Regrettably it
is more than likely that the listener
envisaged by Van Dieren will remain
apathetic rather then react with any
kind of protest, or bewilderment. Busoni’s
music, which expects much of its listeners,
may not be for the layman who simply
‘knows what he likes’ but is it really
so obscure and unfathomable?
This second disc of
Jeni Slotchiver’s survey of the ‘visionary’
in Busoni traverses both territories.
The first CD grouped the ‘Six Elegies’.
– for this she has chosen the six pieces
for which the composer chose the title
‘Sonatina’. The term generally would
refer to a short uncomplicated piece
in three or four movements – light-weight,
and perhaps a preparatory creation for
the larger more serious Sonata form.
Quoting ‘Musical America’ the pianist’s
notes for this CD read: "in this
Sonatina (referring to the first which
has no other title) the composer may
have regarded himself as the beginner
or founder of a new system of harmonies."
It is perhaps true that ‘sonatina’ has
also, implicit in the title, a didactic
aspect – and it is significant that,
in this work, the source material comes
from the earlier ‘An die Jugend’ – a
composition not intended for children
to play, but to learn as "visionary
sketches of aspects which in his belief
music was to assume – and dedicated
them ‘To Youth’ which would see the
full growth." (Van Dieren, op.
The semplice opening
of this single movement Sonatina is
strangely captivating, almost childlike
in its appeal. The canvas broadens until
the quiet fughetta subject is heard.
"The music leaves an earthbound
harmony of sure footing" writes
the pianist, "to seaworthy and
with dizzying embroidery, certain flight".
The Allegretto elegante provides a quasi-Scherzo.
In the concluding section the theme
reappears and the final Epilogo is taken
verbatim from ‘An Die Jugend’ which
Ronald Stevenson calls ‘the essence
of Busoni’. Busoni himself, in a letter
to his wife (March 1910) writes "Come
follow me into the realm of music ...
here there is no end to the astonishment
... unthought of scales extend like
hands from one world to another."
The Second Sonatina
(1912) is by contrast a demanding work
of extreme virtuosity – with neither
key nor time signature – and is essentially
a work of complex mysticism. Its origins
lie in the uncompleted music of ‘Faust’.
It ‘contemplates worlds beyond our own"
with directions like occulto and
The third Sonatina,
‘ad usum infantis’ ("encapsulated
innocence") has a youthful idea
in view: "a sonatina for a child
that has the air of a child" and
adds to the title ‘pro cembalo composita’
which, since the tone of the modern
piano is implicit in the style of the
music, has given rise to much controversy.
The five movements end with an elegant
The Sonatina ‘in diem
nativitatis Christi’ was written for
his son Benvenuto and appears, says
the pianist, to be the composer’s plea
The fifth, as its name
implies, is the shortest work on the
The penultimate work
is taken from the 7th volume
of Busoni’s editions of Bach’s keyboard
works and is a version of the Fantasia
and Fugue (BWV 905). It represents,
says the pianist, "Busoni’s signature
on his completed effort".
Finally Busoni turns
his attention to the music of ‘Carmen’.
But this is no pot-pourri of tunes from
the show, nor an operatic paraphrase.
The conception is Lisztian drama in
condensed form and Busoni infuses something
of the demonic into what ultimately
is a disconcerting experience.
The final item is the
monumental transfiguration (in performance
– for Busoni made few emendations to
the original) of the C major organ Toccata
of Bach (BWV 564) The culmination of
the Preludio and the peroration of the
Fugue, have such grandeur in performance
such as this that the resonance of the
woodpipes and the 32 ft stops are for
the moment forgotten.
Jeni Slotchiver is
an ardent disciple of Busoni – her playing
is authoritative and the recorded sound
excellent. Her advocacy is contained
in 26 pages of closely printed notes
– and it seems sometimes that the music
illuminates the notes rather than the
other way around. It is a persuasive
performance – and one looks to the next
disc with considerable interest.
see also review by Jonathan