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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Orchestral Suite No. 2, Op. 34a, K242 ‘Geharnischte Suite’ (1895, rev 1902-03) [21:38]
Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42, K252a (1909) [7:43]
Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra in B flat major, Op 48, K276 (1918) [10:10]
Sarabande and Cortège, Op. 51, K282 (1918-19) [17:25]
Tanzwalzer, Op. 53, K288 (1920) [12:32]
Lustspiel-Ouvertüre, Op. 38, K245 (1897, rev 1904) [6:28]
Indianische Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 44, K264 (1913-14) [23:19]
Gesang vom Reigen der Geister, Op. 47, K269 (1915) [7:14]
Die Brautwahl – Suite for Orchestra, Op. 45, K261 (1912) [27:17]
John Bradbury (clarinet), Nelson Goerner (piano)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec 2001/4, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester.
CHANDOS CHAN241-57 [70:08 + 64:42]

This superb twofer brings together two previous Chandos releases of Busoni’s less well-known orchestral works issued in June 2002 and June 2005. Both received enthusiastic welcomes on this site, from John Leeman (review) and Colin Clarke (review) respectively. Last year’s 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth was a little muted and indeed with rare exceptions (the three disc Hamelin set of late piano music on Hyperion comes to mind) there hasn’t really been a re-evaluation of his worth since the original release of these splendid discs. In fact one could argue that this may be something of an occupational hazard for composer/performers – Grainger, Enescu and Ysaÿe are other examples that spring to mind. Of course Busoni was a remarkable pianist but is possibly held in even higher esteem as the most influential teacher of his age. Like Grainger much of his compositional reputation rests on piano transcriptions and re-workings of other composers - especially Bach. It’s almost as though brilliance as a performer detracts from one’s reputation as a composer. Additionally perhaps Busoni’s most famous (some would say notorious) work, the Piano Concerto Op 39, is fiendishly difficult to play, lasts for seventy minutes, and involves a male choir in the final movement, which obviously limits concert programming and recording opportunities, despite (in my view) its obvious stature and memorability.

Busoni still gets a raw deal from critics who are perhaps unsure of his true place in the order and scheme of things. A contemporary of Richard Strauss, Mahler and Sibelius, his orchestral music sometimes seems to convey stylistic fingerprints of each of them, and then the moment passes and we are back with Busoni. His best pieces, for example the Sarabande and Cortège, and the truly extraordinary Berceuse élegiaque (both included here) are utterly original yet profoundly elusive in the best sense of the term, and require really concentrated effort and focus from the listener. If one is fully prepared to commit to them, their rewards are ever increasing.

It was the mood evoked by a live performance of the Berceuse at Dartington in the early 1990s (in a chamber arrangement by Schoenberg’s pupil Erwin Stein) that really drew me to it; its colour, sustained quietness and ‘sighing’, rather than its melodic quality (though that becomes obvious as familiarity with the work grows). The Berceuse shimmers, and while the BBC Philharmonic under Järvi play it with great tact and skill (the recording captures everything in stunning detail) for me it’s just too fast – coming in at under eight minutes (compared, for example to Samuel Wong’s lovely, lingering performance with the Hong Kong PO on Naxos at over eleven - maybe the Naxos production values can’t quite match the Chandos but orchestra and interpretation are first-rate – NAXOS 8.555373 review)
That Busoni conceived the Berceuse as an epitaph for his recently-departed mother is the clue; it incorporates a cradle-song and surely needs more time to breathe. From its hesitant ghostly opening, which seems to presage that of Mahler’s 9th (the Berceuse is itself a transcription and expansion of Busoni’s own earlier Elegie Nr 7 for piano which pre-dates the Mahler by at least a year) to the rapt, quiet gong strokes which conclude the work (and appear to be absorbed into the earth itself), intense contemplation is surely the goal. (Mahler in fact conducted its premiere in New York in February 1911 – spookily in his last ever concert three months before his own demise.)

But that is my only quibble. The other works on the discs do not claim such distilled intensity, although all of them are fascinating (and enjoyable) in their own right and reveal different facets of their truly cosmopolitan composer. The Lustspiele-Ouvertüre (Comedy Overture) was written in the course of a night, it is splendidly orchestrated, ventures into some eccentric tonal areas and truly sparkles – it is an utter delight as are the later Tanzwalzer of 1920, written as a heartfelt tribute to Johann Strauss but containing hints of irony and even flecks of malevolence.

Two of the pieces are connected with Busoni’s operas – the colourful and substantial suite from Die Brautwahl (The Bridal Choice) – a comic opera after E.T.A. Hoffmann. It is superbly delivered by the BBC Philharmonic here, the engineering also highlighting the detail and ingenuity of Busoni’s orchestration. The same applies to the slightly better-known Sarabande and Cortège, a pair of pieces conceived as studies for episodes in Busoni’s operatic masterpiece Doktor Faust. This enigmatic dyad also deserves much wider currency. This recording clarifies details that elude the famous EMI recording under Daniell Revenaugh which provided the filler for John Ogdon’s legendary first recording of the Piano Concerto (EMI Classics 4563242 review).
Busoni’s curiosity about music from way beyond the ambit of the Western European classical tradition perhaps found its most convincing expression in the pieces he fashioned on Native American-Indian models. Two examples feature here: the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra features melodies drawn from several Native Indian tribes including the Cheyenne and the Hopi. These were collated by Busoni’s pupil Natalie Curtis and permeate this exotic and virtually unknown concerto, glitteringly performed here by Nelson Goerner. The second Indian inspired work is the brief and austere Gesang vom Reigen der Geister (Song of the Spirit Dance) of 1915. The spare and economical orchestration (6 winds, strings and timpani) again epitomises Busoni’s brilliant sonic imagination.

This orchestral Busoni-fest is completed by the light-as-air Concertino for clarinet, sensitively given here by the BBC Philharmonic’s long-time principal John Bradbury, while the Geharnischte (‘Armour-plated’) Suite which opens the programme is a kind of Busonian ‘Heldenleben’, each movement dedicated to the composer’s Helsinki drinking pals (who included two of the Järnefelt brothers and inevitably Sibelius). It is deftly orchestrated and eminently listenable.

Neeme Järvi’s discography across five decades has encompassed a repertoire of possibly unequalled breadth. That he should be such an intelligent and instinctive advocate of Busoni (notwithstanding my earlier comments about the Berceuse élégiaque) should not be a surprise but his is perhaps not the first name one might associate with this composer. However performances and recording are outstanding throughout and reveal considerable empathy with Busoni’s experiments and idiosyncrasies. The issue of the two original discs was an unexpected blessing at the time – I rushed out and bought both on the day each was released. They certainly present the most convincing recorded accounts of Busoni’s rarer orchestral music it has ever enjoyed. As a two-for-one deal it really is a no-brainer. I have thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting these discs.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Rob Barnett 




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