Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Hommages à Mozart, Bach, Chopin
Chaconne from Partita in D minor for violin, BWV 1004, by Johann Sebastian Bach, BV. B.24 (1893) [14:26]
Chorale Preludes for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, BV. B.27 nos. 3, 2, 5, 8, 9 (1898) [19:35]
Giga, Bolero e Variazione: Studie nach Mozart, BV.254 no.3 (1909) [4:01]
Drei Albumblätter, BV 289 (1921) [9:42]
Ten Variations on a Prelude by Chopin, BV.213a (1922) [13:17]
Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, BV.253 (1909) [12:21]
Nuit de Noël - Esquisse, BV.251 (1908) [4:33]
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. Kammermusikstudio, SWR Stuttgart, 15-18 September 2008. DDD
CPO 777 427-2 [78:05]

Ferruccio Busoni is one of those composers that some critics seem to loathe by committee. His massive Piano Concerto, for example, is often - though thankfully not universally - cited for its "vulgarity" or "excessive length". Two reviews of separate recent recordings, on Naxos and EMI Classics, show both sides of the fence. Yet musicians love to record his music, as this substantial Wikipedia discography indicates - eleven commercial recordings of the Piano Concerto, for example. Especially in a programme like this one, which includes some of Busoni's deeply respectful yet artistic re-workings of long-cherished music, audiences too can hardly fail to be entranced by the variety, virtuosity and pathos on offer.
Not every musician is entirely up to the often prodigious demands of a Busoni score, particularly in the piano works. Experienced Swedish soloist Roland Pöntinen is not among that number. His own discography includes a whole stack of fine recordings for BIS over the years, and this is his third CD of Busoni's music for CPO, beginning more than a decade ago now with a programme of original Busoni, including his six Piano Sonatinas (review), and followed by further original pieces three years later (review). Incidentally, CPO took two years after recording to issue the first, three years for the second and nearly four for this one: at that rate, if Pöntinen is to record Busoni's complete piano music, neither he nor many listeners will live to see the final release!
Besides his self-evidently first-rate technique, Pöntinen is an expressive player with an impressive stock of tone gradations at his disposal. Perhaps his account here of the famous Chaconne is not the most striking - thanks to a piano roll, by the way, Busoni can be heard playing his Chaconne arrangement himself (review) - but if that is true, he makes amends in the Prelude Variations with a vital, sensitive account that realises both the atmospheric lyricism of Chopin and the profound, chromatic probings of Busoni. He is even better in the Bach Fantasy, where he combines an unassuming tenderness of touch with poetic phrasing to great expressive effect.
Yet although Pöntinen's performances throughout are more than merely creditable, the accompanying booklet is a major let-down. At first glance, all seems well: the German-English-French notes are very detailed - running to somewhere in the order of 4,000 words in the English translation. However, they would be half that size - a tenth, more like - if they had been written by anyone other than CPO's resident note-dispenser, the musicologist Eckhardt van den Hoogen, whose barely concealed delight in his own erudition, expressed through prolixity, literary obscurantism and highfalutin phraseology, makes itself once again the focus of a CPO disc. His recent twelve-column character assassination of Felix Weingartner was extraordinary above all for the fact that CPO actually used it for the notes to accompany the CD of Weingartner's music they were hoping to sell (see review). Van den Hoogen is kinder towards Busoni, but only on his own terms, nevertheless repeatedly mocking the pretentiousness of some of Busoni's writings over the first eight of fifteen columns. As it happens, Busoni did tend towards pomposity - as is the wont of self-styled intellectuals - but the fact that Van den Hoogen cannot recognise self-indulgent smugness in himself rather diminishes his own position.
To top it all, Van den Hoogen's endless tangential inveiglements are made even more unpalatable by resident translator Susan Marie Praeder. She proves incapable of rendering his flatulent German into sentences acceptable in length and intelligibility to a native English speaker.
Finally, the CD track-listing is a bit scrappy. Besides the very small font which does not read well in bold type, the all-German titling has its share of poor punctuation, randomly applied italics and misleading labelling. Some of this was tidied up for the above listing. Lengthy notes come at another price - a small dense print that verges on the illegible for anyone with less than perfect eyesight. The English-language proof-reader is one such - Pöntinen's biography includes the Swedish word 'och' in place of 'and', and the French word 'mars' for what should have been 'March'. There are other typographical errors dotted about the booklet, but in truth they barely matter, because anyone buying this CD is better off focusing entirely on Busoni's inventive, universal music. Roland Pöntinen's virtuosic but insightful interpretations are all captured in good quality sound.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

Pöntinen's virtuosic but insightful interpretations are all captured in good quality sound.