Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Concerto, Op. 39 (1903-1904) [79:50]
Roberto Cappello (piano)
Corale Luca Marenzio/Martino Faggiani
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 8-9 March 2009, Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome
Track-list at end of review
NAXOS 8.572523 [79:50]
 
Francesco La Vecchia and his Roman band made an indelible impression on me with their recordings of Alfredo Casella’s First and Second Symphonies. An added bonus was the discovery of these inexplicably neglected works, among the finest of recent Naxos releases. With those memorable experiences in mind I was especially keen to hear this new Busoni disc. The pianist Roberto Cappello, who is new to me, certainly has plenty of competition from the likes of John Ogdon (EMI), Garrick Ohlsson (Telarc) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion).
 
I’m particularly fond of the Ohlsson, which combines magisterial playing with good - if not outstanding - sonics, the able Christoph von Dohnanyi directing the Cleveland Orchestra. And yes, this sprawling five-part concerto is way too long, but with a genuinely commanding pianist it passes quickly, and is apt to seem more interesting than it actually is. In La Vecchia’s hands the long orchestral prelude in the first movement has warmth, body and a real sense of excitement. Indeed, it promises to be a truly compelling and/or convincing version of this problematic piece. But does it deliver?
 
In a word, no. The first shock is the rough, jangling piano, Cappello attacking the notes for all they’re worth. Busoni 101, there’s quite enough bluster here without adding more. Particularly disappointing is the orchestral playing, which lacks the refinement and focus that makes the Casella discs so special. True, Busoni’s empurpled writing is a constant problem, but at least Dohnanyi and the Clevelanders make a decent job of unravelling those tangled textures. Moreover, Ohlsson combines brio with breadth, imbuing the music with a modicum of character, something Cappello signally fails to do.
 
The second movement isn’t much better, Busoni’s energetic writing unpardonably raw, the lacerating strings garnished with a scarring piano in the upper registers. While this music rambles anyway, one senses there’s no compass to get the musicians out of troublesome thickets. Very occasionally, in much quieter passages - notably the Pezzo serioso - Cappello hints at settled introspection, only to veer off in hyperactive pursuit of heaven knows what.
 
Once or twice I’ve had reason to disparage the variable piano sound produced by Naxos, and I must do so again, for it’s a real bar to enjoyment. Clearly, not all recordings are equal, even those produced by the same teams in the same venues. If in doubt just listen to the fine sonics of those Casella CDs, which are as good as you’re likely to find anywhere. Back to the concerto, and the Tarantella certainly gets the pulse racing. As for articulation and focus, they’re impressive, but that’s what Cappello does best.
 
There’s no escaping the border-line vulgarity of Busoni’s concoction - some would even say it’s beyond help - but listening to Ohlsson et al it’s clear that one can play down this aspect of Busoni’s musical persona, with thrilling results. Here, the latter half of the fourth movement is simply excruciating in its mix of deranged pianism and aggressive sound. Yes, this may be superficially exciting, but it’s otherwise pretty intolerable. As for the restless introduction to the final movement, it comes as a relief. The playing lacks direction and the choir is dull and poorly focused.
 
A more unlovely performance of this concerto it would be hard to imagine.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei
 
A more unlovely performance of this concerto it would be hard to imagine.
 
Tracklist
I. Prologo e Introito: Allegro, dolce e solenne [18:57]
II. Pezzo giocoso: Vivacemente, ma senza fretta [10:34]
III. Pezzo serioso: Introductio - Prima Pars - Altera Pars - Ultima Pars [25:08]
IV. All'Italiana (Tarantella): Vivace - In un tempo [13:13]
V. Cantico: Largamente [11:58]