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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chaconne from the Partita in D minor BWV 1004 (transcribed Busoni BV B21, 1897) [14:47]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Fantasia after Bach BV253 (1909)[14:45]
Fantasia contrappuntistica edizione definitiva BV256 (1910) 29:33]
Lukasz Kwiatkowski (piano)
rec. 2014, Witold Lutoslawski Polish Radio Concert Studio
DUX 0934 [58:53]

Busoni was born in Italy but was German in his cultural affiliations. This was partly because his father ensured that he was brought up to play Bach, who ever after remained a key part of his repertory as a virtuoso pianist and greatly influenced his compositional style. In this enterprising issue we have three Bach-inspired works: a virtuoso transcription which reworks a solo violin work in a late Romantic pianistic idiom, a meditative work which draws on Bach but is characteristically Busoni, and finally the great Fantasia Contrappuntistica, of which more anon. Kwiatkowski is a scholar as well as a pianist and has written a book (in Polish) on Busoni’s use of Bach so he is well placed to perform this programme.

In his earlier years Busoni made a great number of transcriptions of Bach’s organ music and developed a characteristic technique for doing so. He had to find ways of compensating for the lack of a pedal keyboard, for the piano’s inability to sustain notes at length and for the lack of the colours provided by different organ stops. When he came to transcribe the chaconne from Bach’s second partita he drew on all the skills he had developed in his organ transcriptions as well as on Bach’s own transcription for organ of his violin fugue in G minor. The result is a work completely re-imagined with full chords, elaborate bass lines, octave doublings and all the techniques of Romantic piano music. There is also a great variety of texture: some of it is massive but by no means all. Kwiatkowski plays it with great clarity, considerable rhythmic freedom and also delicacy where required. Authenticity in a work like this has to be authenticity to the idiom of the transcriber, not the original work, so his freedom is entirely justified.

The Fantasia after Bach draws on three Bach chorales, chiefly “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag” (BWV 766). Busoni wrote this work after the death of his father, with whom he had had a difficult relationship. Over the last few bars are the words PAX EI! (peace be to him). The Bach works feature three repeated notes, a motif Busoni had also used in his second violin sonata as a death motif and which evoke bell sounds. In Kwiatkowski’s performance they ring out clearly through the sometimes complex textures. His performance is rather measured: Roland Pöntinen’s is slightly faster and Marc-André Hamelin’s is perhaps subtler but Kwiatkowski’s is beautiful in its own terms.

The Fantasia Contrappuntistica grew out of work on a projected edition of Bach’s Art of Fugue, which Busoni in fact never completed. He became absorbed by the problem of completing Bach’s last, unfinished fugue, which develops three themes at great length but breaks off before introducing the motto theme of the whole work which appears in all the other fugues. Nottebohm was perhaps the first to suggest a solution, but Busoni was inspired by an organist and theorist Bernhard Ziehn together with his pupil Wilhelm Middelschulte. This was while Busoni was in Chicago in the course of a tour in 1910. He first worked out his solution in a privately printed work entitled Grosse Fugue. This incorporates Bach’s fragment with its three fugues, not as it stands but with cuts, trills, chromatic alterations and occasional octave doublings. He then inserted an Intermezzo with three variations on the Bach themes. There is then a Cadenza before the final Fugue IV which introduces the quadruple combination and also other material from elsewhere in the Art of Fugue before leading to a final Stretto. He described it as something between César Franck, of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and the Hammerklavier sonata, and it is enormously demanding on the pianist and quite a challenge for the listener too.

Later that same year he reworked it with an introductory Prelude, based on the chorale prelude “Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu dir” as used in his own third Elegy for piano. There are further revisions to Bach’s original with a unfortunate cut to the Fugue IV; the cut passage is printed as an Addendum at the end, which means it is hardly ever played. This is the so-called edizione definitiva, but in fact Busoni was to go on to make two more versions: the edizione minore of 1912 has a new prelude and omits the extra material to present a simple version of Fugue IV; and the version for two pianos of 1922, which combines both the previous preludes, has further cuts and modifications and an improved ending. Busoni also projected an orchestral version but did not make one; several others have subsequently done so. He also intended to make a new solo piano version. Although he did not live to do so, the pianist and Busoni scholar Larry Sitsky, whose book on Busoni’s piano music I have drawn on, demonstrated exactly how this could be done and I hope that one day some pianist will record what we might perhaps call an edizione espansiva. In any version this was the largest piano work of the twentieth century in the German tradition until Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, which indeed is somewhat indebted to it.

Few pianists, even among Busoni specialists, attempt this work. Even Pöntinen and Hamelin, who have recorded much of his music, have so far avoided it. So we should be grateful to Kwiatkowski who plays it with admirable clarity, laying out the complicated structure and not getting fazed in the thorniest passages. He plays the edizione definitiva exactly as it stands, so without the Addendum reinserted. Among the recordings I know, only John Ogdon reinstates it. Ogdon also imports the improved ending from the two-piano version, so his recording is valuable for these points as well as for his exciting performance, in which he gets carried away in places. Hamish Milne is more recent, more massive and better recorded than Ogdon. Kwiatkowski’s recording quality is outstanding: the piano is slightly more forward than in most piano recordings but is superbly resonant and the bass is excellent. The disc is packaged like a SACD but does not say it is one. I listened on ordinary two-channel equipment.

You might have thought that Dux, having found a pianist who can offer such an interesting programme and who is also an authority on the works, would have invited him to write at some length about them in the sleeve-note. Not a bit of it: the note is skimpy in the extreme; not so the playing. If you are a fan of these works you will want to hear this disc.

Stephen Barber



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