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
NAXOS 8.572523 [79:50]

It’s very easy to churn out clichés about Busoni’s Piano Concerto. It’s like no other work. It’s too long. It’s a synthesis of German discipline and Latin passion. And so on. The trouble with clichés is that they are usually true, and it’s only repeating them that diminishes their effect. Richard Whitehouse, in the very fine English essay that accompanies this Naxos issue – there is original Italian documentation too – refers darkly to the work’s being “the longest piano concerto to have been heard in public”. I’d be interested to know how many piano concertos longer than this one have been composed but never performed. I’m sure someone reading this will be able to enlighten me. So the work is obviously very long, but too long? How long is too long? How long would be acceptable? Few people would say that Brahms’ Second Concerto was too long, but half an hour of music would be lost in cutting Busoni down to Brahms’ size, and this would transform the work into something totally different. Whether the work seems too long depends, to a large extent, on the quality of the performance. Many a shorter work can seem too long in an indifferent performance. By the same token, the performance can bring out, to a greater or lesser extent, the fact that the music often sounds something like Brahms, often a lot like Liszt, and even, at certain points in the enormous middle movement in particular, sometimes like Chopin. And yet each movement has moments where the music is undeniably and unmistakeably Italian, with tarantella rhythms and even real Italian folk themes. If all this were not enough to support the thesis that the work is unlike any other, let us mention the final movement, where a male chorus, offstage, sings a hymn-like ode apparently extolling the indestructible force of human creativity, generation after generation, age after age.

For many years the only modern recording of this monumental work was by that marvellous pianist long gone and sadly missed, John Ogdon. Since then several others have appeared, of which this, by Italian forces, is the latest. Roberto Cappello clearly has a formidable technical armoury at his disposal, as what might seem the inevitable splashy moments are both rare and insignificant. Listening to the work without a score, the orchestra seems to play well enough from a technical point of view too. At a few seconds short of eighty minutes, this is probably among the longest performances of the work, and to a question evoked above – does the work seem long in performance? – one regretfully replies in the affirmative, though perhaps not for the most obvious of reasons. There are very few moments that seem particularly slow, and amongst them, the close of the middle movement, for example, the playing is most eloquent and convincing. No, the problem is that the performance has a relentlessness about it which rather encourages the view that the work is little more than a barnstorming virtuoso vehicle. The playing, especially but not exclusively from the soloist, is often inflexible and unyielding, and certainly lacks delicacy in places where other performers have certainly found that quality. And, strange to report, now that excellence in recorded sound is taken more or less for granted, the recording doesn’t help. One hears at the outset that the orchestral sound is flat and one-dimensional, pale, lacking in depth, almost synthetic. Unfortunately the problem extends to the piano too, harsh and clangy.

This all makes for a rather tiring eighty minutes, but it needn’t be so. Garrick Ohlsson’s performance on Telarc (CD80207) is very highly thought of in many quarters. I have never heard this performance, but each of the two I know is preferable to this new one. Ogdon’s reading was first issued in 1968 (EMI) and is marvellous in every way. It was a pioneering performance at the time, but it is nonetheless remarkably assured and convincing. Ogdon finds more variety of tone colour and mood than does Cappello here, and the orchestral support from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Daniel Revenaugh – a name unknown to me outside of this performance – is very fine, as is the contribution of the men of the John Alldis Choir. Then, in 1999, appeared the clincher, Marc-André Hamelin’s performance on Hyperion, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Mark Elder. It was only reluctantly that I accepted the newcomer, but accepted it I did, as it is finer even than Ogdon, mainly because the performers find yet more variety of mood, even to the point of humour, amidst the tumultuous cascades of notes, yet without sacrificing in the least the ferocious virtuosity that is so central to the work. It was when I heard this performance for the first time that I became convinced of the truth of that other cliché so often churned out about Busoni’s Concerto; that, flawed though it may be, it is a masterpiece.

William Hedley

Other performances of Busoni’s extraordinary work are preferable to this one, especially to those coming to the work for the first time.