If only more violinists had followed Szigeti’s lead, perhaps Busoni’s 1897 Violin Concerto might have experienced greater exposure. He played it in New York in 1941 with Mitropoulos at a commemorative concert devoted to the composer’s memory and a recording exists, preserved on Music & Arts CD-1052, although his association with it went right back to the earliest years of the century. He’d played it to Busoni as early as 1912. The dedicatee was however Henri Petri, father of Egon, another great Busoni exponent who also performed at that 1941 concert. This is a work that ideally needs a knightly exponent as its sometimes undigested influences – which Szigeti clearly did so much to mitigate – can seem somewhat effortful in less nuanced hands.
Of recent years it’s Frank Peter Zimmermann
who has laid claim to the principal place in the work’s short discography. Now Tanja Becker-Bender enters the lists. With her strong dark tone she effortlessly surmounts those passages in which Busoni has co-opted Brahms’s earlier model and infused it with hints of Dvořákian folklore. The fine wind playing irradiates the slow movement with its hints of Bruch-like lyricism. There are also examples of passagework that seem, subconsciously or not, to evoke the Beethoven Violin Concerto. This movement is strangely beautiful despite this compendium of earlier concertos. It’s as if Busoni were citing them in his own work deliberately. The carnivalesque finale is full of capricious brio and colour, its various incidents charted with great vitality by soloist marshalled in accomplished fashion by Garry Walker and his BBC Scottish Symphony forces, who have been excellently recorded. It ends the performance on a real high, not least those whooping figures with which the work closes.
Immediately following it is Busoni’s arrangement for violin and orchestra of Beethoven’s Benedictus
from the Missa Solemnis
in a first-ever recording. Published in 1916 this by no means outstays its welcome, though it is hard to imagining it having much of a life on the concert stage.
The companion concerto is by Richard Strauss. Completed earlier than the Busoni, in 1882, its opening movement, rather diffuse, has often caused concern and interpretative worries. But Becker-Bender plays the rather overripe and busy passagework adroitly, minimising the longueurs. She takes care not to compensate by over-vibrating, and is properly more concerned to bind together the material, which is, after all, a reflection of the youthful Strauss’ bravado and self-confidence. The lyrical central movement is well played and the finale – pirouetting and energetically laid out though not always consequentially - receives a similarly fine reading.
There are coupling questions to consider when plumping for a particular disc. On Sony Zimmermann couples the concerto with Busoni’s Second Sonata, another Szigeti speciality. Sarah Chang has recorded the Strauss with Sawallisch on EMI, adding the Strauss Sonata. The choice then lies between single-composer discs, concerto and a sonata, and Becker-Bender’s mixed repertoire. If she and Walker don’t quite scale the heights that the other two violinists display, she loses for little and if the coupling appeals then you need not hesitate.