Ferruccio BUSONI (1866 – 1924)
Piano Music - Volume 5
6 Études, op.16 (1884) [22:22]
6 Stücke, op.33b (1896) [24:22]
Zehn Variationen uber ein Präludium von Chopin (1922) [12:48]
J. S. BACH (1685 – 1750) Prelude and Fugue in E?, St Anne, BWV552 (arr. Busoni) [13:56]
Wolf Harden (piano)
rec. 7-8 October 2007, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. DDD
NAXOS 8.570891 [73:28]

Busoni is a character who has fascinated me for many years. His work, in the main, is so obviously far-reaching and “modern” yet he, in real terms, barely lived in the so-called modern era. So what are we to make of a man who can wear so many hats, transcend his own time, write pieces such as the classical 6 Études, the much more contemporary 6 Stücke, and still find time to be the younger half of the famous Bach/Busoni duo?

Over the years I have met two people who knew Busoni – Emil Telmányi (who told me that he and Busoni gave one of the first, if not the first, performances in concert, that is before a paying audience, of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas (Berlin 1922 or thereabouts)) and Jascha Horenstein – and their comments on the composer are at variance. Telmányi claimed that Busoni was a thinker, a quiet man, whereas Horenstein claimed him to be a real party animal; I dare not write what Horenstein actually said! Suffice it to say, these two very different descriptions show two of the different sides to Busoni – the classicist and the modernist. This CD shows all three faces of the man.

The St Anne Prelude and Fugue is a large work, and Busoni’s arrangement only serves to make it seem even larger! It’s as flamboyant and full of notes as you could want and it is magnificent. The 6 Études, op.16 starts with a very classical Allegro deciso and is followed by a fugal Allegro moderato, full of scrumptious twists and turns, which transforms, in the middle section, into a wild waltz! The third movement, Moderato, could almost be a piece of ballet music, were it not for the heavy writing for the left hand. The fourth Étude is a kind of revolutionary studio without too much fighting; it’s too polite, but it still has a quiet power. The ensuing Fugue is strictly in form, a real bevy of notes – had this been written later the textures would have been cleaner – but none the worse for that; it has a smile on its face throughout. The Scherzo which ends the set is Lisztian in feel, a big and bold, somewhat macabre, piece. There is even a foreshadowing of Mahler in his darker mood at one point! Throughout this suite Busoni throws in the odd bar or two of music of a drawing room type. I am sure this is done to make one sit up and consider what one is listening to: serious concert work or drawing-room miniature? After hearing this nobody could claim that Busoni didn’t have a sense of humour!

The 6 Stücke are a totally different matter. Here is the searching Busoni, each piece having a very specific title. Whilst Schwermuth broods, Frohsinn and Scherzino enjoy life to the full. In modo antico is Bach/Busoni without the Bach, a serious chorale prelude with a vivacious fugue. The Finnische Ballade contains some hair–raising chromatic writing, counterpointing a relaxed chordal idea. The final Exeunt omnes is vivacious, and dispels any feeling of morbidity or sadness.

The final Zehn Variationen uber ein Präludium von Chopin is a new version of a set of Variations he wrote in 1884/1885 - this can be found on Volume 2 of this survey of Busoni’s piano music. It’s a thorough reworking of older material in Busoni’s later, more radical style. It’s virtuosic, and somewhat relentless, but it’s a stunning piece.

I enjoyed this recital, not least because it juxtaposes old and newer works. The performances are given by someone who obviously cares for the music. The sound is clear and precise and the notes pretty good. This disk is a bargain which is too good to miss.

Bob Briggs