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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chaconne for solo violin, transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni (1894) [13:56]

Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Piano Sonata Op. 1 (1907/08) [10:18]

Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)

Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 (1909) [11:46]
Piano Piece Op. 11 No. 2, Concert Interpretation by Ferruccio Busoni (1910) [7:27]

Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)

Chamber Symphony (1916), transcribed for piano by Ignaz Strasfogel [24:50]
Emma Schmidt (piano)
rec. Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany, 22-24 Nov 2004. DDD
Aufbruch und Tradition


Aufbruch und Tradition title of this disc, which translates to 'Departure and Tradition' (or, according to the CD booklet, 'New awakening and tradition'), seems most apt for its interesting and unusual programme, as most of the piano pieces it contains are arrangements of one form or another. In some cases, though, these are sufficiently unusual that they could not really have been anticipated, least of all by their original composers.

The disc opens with a piano version of Bach's Chaconne from his second Violin Partita, written by that most ambitious editor of Bach works, Ferruccio Busoni, who was himself also a composer and keyboard virtuoso, even if he is best remembered today for his Bach transcriptions. There are various other keyboard versions of music that Bach originally wrote for a solo melodic instrument, not only by Busoni, and it always seems surprising just how much implied music, both harmonic and motivic, can be extrapolated into a virtuosic arrangement for two constantly-occupied hands. Busoni asserted, according to the CD booklet, that "Bach went far beyond the violin's capabilities [in this Chaconne], so that the instrument he chose is not adequate." Regardless of the degree of presumption in this statement (Bach knew his own musical intentions, after all), the basic assertion is borne out by the sheer complexity of Busoni's arrangement.

However, the virtuosic nature of the arrangement makes it seem almost excessively ambitious, and at times nearly overloads the music with vulgar and arguably misplaced Romanticism. No doubt, at the time this was written, it was regarded as transforming a rather understated violin piece into a spectacular tour de force for the piano, and indeed it is a most expertly created application of Romantic sensibilities to Baroque music. More than a century on, though, it sounds dated in a way that Bach's own original version never could be.

That isn't to say that it's poor, however; it's just that some listeners may consider it rather misguided. On the contrary, for the non-purists it is undoubtedly a spectacular concert piece, and unquestionably enjoyable for its sheer sonic splendour. There are, though, certain passages that do not come off quite as well as they might, unfortunately: at times, grumbling low notes sound rather muddy, and ambitiously spread chords require the pianist to play a series of chordal appoggiaturas which greatly disrupt the flow of the melodic line. This, in particular, is one aspect in which this sounds excessively Romantic and un-Bachian. Nevertheless, Emma Schmidt produces a convincing and sensitive performance; there is little to fault in her playing, and she makes the most of Busoni's interpretation of Bach's music.

Another piece in which Busoni had a particularly unexpected hand is the second of Arnold Schönberg's Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. Schönberg wrote these in 1909 and sent them to Busoni, who at the time was considered to be Liszt's natural successor, for his comments. Although only eight years Schönberg's senior, Busoni's Romantic musical outlook was very different from Schönberg's revolutionary approach, and it is therefore not surprising that Schönberg took a certain exception to Busoni's impulsive attempt to arrange the second of the three pieces. Evidently acting with the best of intentions, Busoni took it upon himself to make the piece 'more pianistic' by adding various embellishments. Schönberg reacted by saying, according to the CD notes, that "I cannot possibly publish my piece together with an arrangement that shows how I could have written it better."

Emma Schmidt plays the three original Schönberg pieces in order, and then follows them with a recording of the Busoni version of the second, thus providing a fascinating opportunity to compare the two. The Busoni is certainly a curiosity: although the modifications are really quite small-scale, and don't change the character of the piece to any great extent, they do have an odd effect on it. Busoni's additions amount in the main to no more than occasional embellishments to the existing music: chords repeated softly up an octave, arabesques and pianistic flourishes superimposed here and there, and other similarly Romantic affectations. The bulk of the music remains identical, but it is almost as though its language has been comprehensively mired in the previous generation's aesthetics, from which Schönberg had consciously been trying to escape. The Busoni therefore comes across as a profoundly strange creation, and some of his additions seem quite amusingly inappropriate in the context of Schönberg's intentionally sparse language.

The least-known work on the CD is a piano transcription of Franz Schreker's Chamber Symphony by Ignaz Strasfogel. The CD booklet waxes lyrical about the quality of Schreker's "magical musical world" and the unjustness of his obscurity. On the evidence of this one piece, I am inclined to agree, though the language of the music is far more Romantic than the booklet notes led me to expect. Schreker, according to the booklet, largely adhered to Schönberg's aesthetic principles and eschewed conventional musical motifs in favour of an environment created of pure sound, which, wrote Schreker, "is one of the most essential expressive means in music drama, unequalled for creating atmosphere." I am not familiar with Schreker's work, and that description, coupled with the fact that the piece was written in 1916, led me to expect a serial piece, perhaps with a colourfully Bergian approach to tonality but without much discernibly thematic identity.

Nothing could have been further from the truth when I heard it: in fact, this Chamber Symphony is overtly Romantic in nature, and the supposed abandonment of musical motifs seems to mean no more than that Schreker has taken a free, rhapsodic approach to the composition. The motifs are certainly there to be heard in all sections, anyway, even if the music chooses to progress through moods and colours rather than repeating itself to any great extent; though there is a degree of repetition, particularly of the opening material. Although the language of the music may be slightly backward-looking, the piece is thoroughly charming. At times (in the Scherzo, for instance) it sounds as 19th century as Grieg, whilst at other times (such as the final Adagio) its tonality becomes more dissonant, and throughout it exhibits a penchant for modulations that put one vaguely in mind of Richard Strauss.

The solo-piano transcription of a piece that was originally written for an ensemble of such unusual instruments as celesta, harmonium and harp (not to mention piano, strings and brass) is quite superb, and remarkably successful. Schreker, it seems, was a master of orchestral colour, and it would have appeared unlikely that such an interestingly-scored piece as this Chamber Symphony could be reduced to a piano score and retain more than a fraction of its colourful character. Nevertheless, Strasfogel's arrangement manages to succeed miraculously well. This is helped, no doubt, by Emma Schmidt's superb playing: perhaps more than with any other piece on the disc, she exhibits a great deal of musical understanding of this piece and portrays its kaleidoscope of characters with great conviction, from the arrestingly dreamlike and delicate opening section to the exuberant and ecstatic scherzo. The whole performance, and the piece itself, is enchanting, and has certainly had the effect of making me want to hear the original orchestral version!

The only piece on this CD which is not either an arrangement itself, or coupled with an arranged version, is Alban Berg's Op. 1 Piano Sonata. This is a tightly-written single-movement work which, again, is played with understanding and conviction. As a transitional piece between chromatic late Romanticism and 20th century atonality, the ten-minute work sits well alongside the Schönberg pieces on the CD, though its inclusion seems slightly unexpected in that it's the only piece not to have been tampered with by some other composer!

I can thoroughly recommend this CD, therefore, not least for its generally interesting and well-thought-out programme and the excellent Schreker item. One final point of interest should be made: for your money you receive not one but two CDs, both containing the same music! The first CD is a standard stereo recording whilst the second uses 5.1-channel DTS Digital Surround sound. Unfortunately, I do not own suitable equipment to allow me to play the DTS CD, and attempting to play it in my regular CD player, or on my computer, resulted in unpleasant white noise; hence the need for an ordinary CD as well, presumably. However, the second disc will be a worthwhile bonus for anyone who does have suitable equipment.

Richard Hallas



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