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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Busoni The Visionary - Volumes 1-3
Jeni Slotchiver (piano)
rec. 1994-2012, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
CENTAUR CRC2438/2681/3396 [72:52 & 69:29 & 68:50]

Now when it comes to the music of Ferruccio Busoni I must admit to coming to it from the complete opposite direction to most people. The Bach transcriptions didn’t really attract me, rather it was his two string quartets which first drew my attention. Then came the mighty Piano Concerto in C with male chorus. It was only after these that I got to know the composer’s solo piano music, and that was through the fine performances of Ira Maria Witoshynskyj on Capriccio (49 576), a box set that also included orchestral and chamber music. It was this set that led me to investigate the piano music further, mainly through Wolf Harden’s recordings for the Naxos label (Volume 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4 ~ Volume 5 ~ Volume 6 ~ Volume 8) but also the excellent 3 CD set from Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion (CDA67951/3) a set that contains many of the pieces contained on these recordings.

When Busoni published his Seven Elegies in 1907 it came in the wake of his groundbreaking book ‘Towards a New Aesthetic of Music’. In that book he outlined the direction he thought music should take in the twentieth century. This included atonality and the need for electronic instruments, however the Elegies themselves rather than looking forward seem to occupy a position somewhere between the music of the late Romantics and that of his more modernistic mature compositions. This is a very fine series of pieces; one which is easily the highlight of Volume One. They are sensitively played, especially the profoundly moving final elegy or ‘Berceuse’, included here. As with Hamelin, Slotchiver includes it as an integral part of the seven, whilst Harden, although it follows directly after the previous six, gives it a separate title.

Busoni in his Six Sonatinas can be seen to be paying homage to some of his musical heroes. No. 5 pays homage to J. S. Bach whilst the final Sonatina, despite being based on themes from Bizet’s Carmen, is indebted to Liszt, with Busoni using the older composer’s ‘Fantasy on Themes From Don Giovanni’ as his model. The other Sonatinas can be said to chart Busoni’s development as a composer, with the First, although dissonant at times, remaining tonal. The Second Sonatina is a more aggressive work than the first, even being referred to as “senza tonaalità” or “without tonality”, but it is hardly representative of atonality. The Third Sonatina, according to its subtitle was actually composed for the harpsichord. It is in reality a miniature suite of five contrasting, yet connected movements, which at times embody neo-Classical ideas. The Fourth Sonatina is a calm piece dedicated to the composer’s son Benvenuto. This is a wonderful cycle that displays the differing aspects of Busoni the composer.

I need to discuss the transcriptions of Bach — each disc finished with one. My personal favourite of the three is the final one, the Prelude and Triple Fugue in E Flat Major BWV 552, the famous St. Anne Chorale. This displays all the skill and expertise of the transcriber. This is despite some people describing Busoni’s attempts as somewhat heavy-handed and whilst I still prefer to hear Bach as it was intended, in this case as an organ work. Even so, I enjoyed this transcription and Jeni Slotchiver’s performance of it.

These three recordings seem to be the only recordings in the catalogue by the pianist Jeni Slotchiver, who, going by the copious notes contained in each of the booklets, is something of a Busoni aficionado. This is a real shame as her playing here portrays a real understanding of the music. Slotchiver chooses to present mainly original compositions on these discs with just one, though substantial, transcription per CD. On the whole she is slower than both Marc-André Hamelin and Wolf Harden, and in some cases, quite a lot slower. In fact it doesn’t really matter when the playing is as incisive as this. What’s more you don’t really notice as there is no sense of the music dragging. I would still choose Marc-André Hamelin if asked to suggest a single interpreter.

Jeni Slotchiver’s interpretations of this music offer the listener an extremely valuable alternative account. I hope she will go on to record more Busoni.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous reviews (Vol.2 ): Jonathan Woolf ~~ Colin Scott-Sutherland

Volume 1
Red Indian Diary: Book One (1915): (Four studies on motifs of the North-American Indians: 1. Hopi. He-Hea Katzina Song. [2:50]; 2. Cheyenne. Song of Victory. [1:50]; 3. Pima. Blue Bird Song. [4:50]; 4. Lagunas. Corn-Grinding Song; 5. Wabanakis. Passamquoddy Dance Song. [3:03])
Seven Elegies (1907): 1. Nach der Wendung. Recueillement [5:56]; 2. All’ Italia! In modo Napolitano [7:56]; 3. “Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir...” Choralvorspiel [8:38]; 4. Turandot’s Frauengemach. Intermezzo [4:15]; 5. Die Nächtlichen. Walzer [3:20]; 6. Erscheinung. Notturno [7:17]; 7. Berceuse [6:43]
Chaconne (transcribed for piano) from Partita in D minor for Solo Violin, by J.S. Bach (c.1892) [16:11]
Rec. 1994. Released in 1999

Volume 2
The Sonatinas: 1. Sonatina (1910) [12:48]; 2. Sonatina seconda (1912) [8:50]; 3. Sonatina ad usum infantis Madeline M.* Americanae [7:32]; 4. pro Clavicimbalo composita (c.1915); 5. Sonatina in diem nativitatis Christi MCMXVII (1917) [7:57]; 6. Sonatina brevis. In Signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni. [5:18]; 7. In freier Nachdichtung vin Bachs Kleiner Fantasie und Fuge d-moll (c.1920); 8. Sonatina super Carmen (1920) [8:50]
Toccata in C Major BWV 564 (transcribed for piano 1913) from original for Organ by J.S. Bach: i. Preludio [6:57]; ii. Adagio [5:26]; iii. Fuga [5:13]
rec. 2002. Released in 2004

Volume 3
Toccata Preludio-Fantasia-Ciaccona (1920) [11:45]
Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin (1922) [12:53]
Prélude et Etude (en Arpèges) (1923): i. Prélude [4:19]; ii. Etude [4:22]
Nuit de Noël Esquisse pour le Piano (1908) [4:17]
Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach Alla Memoria di mioPadre Ferdinando Busoni † il 12 Maggio 1909† (1909) [13:20]
Prelude and Triple Fugue in E Flat Major BWV 552 (St. Anne) from original for Organ by J.S. Bach (transcribed for piano 1913) [17:48]
Jeni Slotchiver (piano)
rec. 2012



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