Ferruccio Busoni is a difficult figure to pin down. Extremely
influential, yet he is hardly performed to the extent he deserves.
His music is often adventurous without being avant-garde in
ways in which that of many of his contemporaries was. Competent
on the violin by the age of four and a veritable 'veteran' by
12, Busoni's first compositions date from the early 1870s, when
he was as young as six. With an amazing intellect, memory and
an obviously sensitive disposition, his father's wish to exploit
the young prodigy and a dislike of the provincialism of recently-unified
Italy drove Busoni to Germany. There amid its wider musical
life he found greater satisfaction; though he never really took
to the teaching he was forced to do, nor to concert life.
It was the interpretation, an understanding of the essence of
a composition, that interested Busoni more than the technique
of performing. He craved recognition chiefly as a composer.
In 1906 he published his famous Entwurf einer neuen Äesthetik
der Tonkunst ('Sketch of a new musical aesthetic') which
sought to provide practical - and in many ways surprisingly
visionary - solutions to what he saw as the limitations of Western
music: bitonality, quarter tone harmonics, a certain determination
to follow musical ideas and phrasing regardless of convention.
The Seven Elegies which take up just over half of this
CD were written the following year as exempla of his theories;
they were published in 1908 and first performed to derision
and opposition in 1909 by Busoni himself in Berlin. There are
half a dozen or so other recordings of the work, that on Philips
(420740), part of Geoffrey Douglas Madge's six hour Busoni piano
marathon is perhaps the easiest to recommend. This performance
by Sandro Ivo Bartoli is calm, confident, transparent and compelling.
There are no surprises and the work progresses gently and steadily.
It's essential that the subtleties of key - which key often
changes within a musical phrase - are observed but are neither
overplayed nor taken for granted. They must become an integral
part of the music. The same goes for the various genres pressed
into service during the nearly forty minutes of music: barcarolle,
tarantella, chorale and so on. But, again, Bartoli avoids
pastiche. Listen to the energy with which he tackles Meine
Seele bangt und hofft zu dir [tr.3], the third Elegy). It's
never forced, rushed, shouted about or pushed. The nuances of
shifting, shimmering tonality are brought out by this accomplished
pianist. Such use of suggestion by a Debussy or a Scriabin is
clear and present. Bartoli's pauses and completely controlled
desire to pick up the melody - listen to the delicacy of the
tempi in the next Elegy, Turandots Frauengemach [tr.4],
which quotes Greensleeves too! - bring us fully into
the world in which Busoni believed, rather than have us marvel
at its eccentricities, as we might with Satie.
In other words, we're enjoying Busoni on his own terms, for
his own sake - and not Bartoli's - and at his own pace. We're
not being given a gratuitous example of Busoni's 'new theories'
but valid music for all its innovation and simple novelty. There
is nevertheless an undemonstrative persuasion in the style of
the pianist, about whom the rather minimal leaflet from Brilliant
says next to nothing. In fact Bartoli was born in 1970 in Pisa,
has a relatively wide repertoire. Even so he has fewer currently
available recordings than his scope and the prizes he has won
might suggest. By the end of the Seven Elegies, Bartoli's
restraint, delicacy and exactness are seen to have been contributing
in equal manner to the ethereal, almost elusive beauty which
is present, yet can hardly be named. The tonality of the final
piece remains with the listener for some time.
The CD begins with the almost as long Fantasia contrappuntistica,
which was written while Busoni was touring in the USA. Inspired
by The Art of Fugue, it underwent several changes in
conception and execution but emerged with Busoni's usual enthusiasm
in four distinct versions. The second is the one presented here
- for solo piano. Again, although he was preoccupied with this
music's structure - an 'architectural' drawing of the Fantasia
contrappuntistica is reproduced in the leaflet - Bartoli
ensures that we listen to the music as music, not as conception.
This is despite the fact that Busoni was at pains to compose
something where the strength of his grasp of counterpoint was
beyond doubt. Although Bartoli states that "There is …
[no] doubt in my mind, at least, that the Fantasia contrappuntistica
is amasterpiece, a work of mystical allure and visionary
genius", not for a second does his playing seek to proselytise
- even implicitly. This is not music that gets the exposure
its enthusiasts believe it should. Rather Bartoli lets the generosity
and breadth of Busoni's vision convince us itself … and
The acoustic on this CD is appropriate, clear, clean and entirely
conducive to the inward-looking yet completely open music about
which Bartoli, for all his restraint, is so enthusiastic. One
is put in mind of Leslie Howard's Liszt. If you're new to Busoni,
feel you should get to know his innovations better, or simply
want a beautiful hour or so's piano music from a poorly lit
corner of the early twentieth century, try this CD.