Anthony BURGESS (1917-1993)
The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues (1985) [80:12]
Finale: Natale (1985) [2:06]
Stephane Ginsburgh (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio 1, Flagey, Brussels.
GRAND PIANO GP773 [82:18]
A couple of years ago Naxos issued a pioneering disc of Anthony Burgess’s orchestral music (8.573472 – review) played by the Brown University Orchestra under Paul Phillips. I had previously heard the off-air recordings of the great author’s Piano Concerto, Manchester Overture and Symphony No 3, and the Naxos disc reinforced the view that Burgess could indeed produce well-wrought, entertaining music. I notice the name ‘Hindemith’ cited as an influence in Paul Corfield Godfrey’s review, and that’s about right; none of this music is life-changing, it’s rather utilitarian, although it’s structurally sound and effectively orchestrated. It also bears repeated listening. Alas, in my humble opinion, the piano set under consideration here does not begin to approach that level of inspiration.
The set takes its name from the fact that Burgess ‘worked out’ these pieces (I hesitate to use the word ‘composed’) on a Casio synthesiser rather than on a piano in 1985. The year gives the clue: having apparently studied Bach’s keyboard music in depth these 24 Preludes and Fugues act as a homage to the ‘48’ and were produced in the year of that master’s tercentenary. As a listener and critic, however, I am left with the feeling that Burgess believed there was little realistic chance of performance – these little pieces sound as though they provided him with little more than a short-lived intellectual challenge. While they do show he had a grasp of the practicalities of the form I actually found them hollow and uninspiring. They sound like a rush job - and it turns out they were.
As a writer Burgess was extremely prolific but was notorious for his stringent self-criticism; it was said that he was a perfectionist who could not begin a new page of manuscript until he was completely satisfied with the previous one. In the note Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer, informs us that it took just 20 days for him to produce the 49 short pieces on this disc. It shows: seemingly the self-editing that characterised his written oeuvre is entirely absent here. It’s also revealing that the pieces were written between the November and December 1985 – perhaps Burgess felt morally compelled to complete the task by the anniversary year end.
On initial hearing, I would be very surprised if most listeners didn’t find the first couple of Preludes and Fugues technically impressive – I did. But memorable they are not. As the disc proceeds the initial novelty very quickly wears off and it becomes apparent that Burgess is effectively rearranging the same pieces – again and again. I suggest it would be difficult for even Burgess’s most ardent admirers to defend this work against accusations of note-spinning. Indeed these pieces are absolutely gravid with notes – it’s not as if there is a great deal of slow music and that’s the main problem. It’s very one-paced, and after listening to the whole collection (heard over two sittings – I would challenge the most patient critic to take it all in at once) I found that the only real means of distinguishing one prelude and fugue from the next were their different keys. Repeated listening has only served to confirm this perception.
I found this cycle quite devoid of inspiration. The shapes of Bach and Shostakovich and Hindemith are used and re-used to death. It is a Ludus taediosus. In the pendant Natale, completed just before Christmas, Burgess plays about with the carol Good King Wenceslas – to little effect. Having experienced the complete cycle I would defy even the most generous critic to feel ‘cheered’ by it.
A word about performance and recording. One has to raise one’s flat cap to the pianist Stephane Ginsburgh. Notwithstanding the quality of the music, he was clearly curious enough to research it and to learn it – after all on paper it must have seemed like a fascinating proposition. Ginsburgh has a formidable technique and to his great credit he does his best to project contrast between each piece, but he is fighting a losing battle. I would certainly like to hear this performer in other repertoire, perhaps some Hindemith. The recording is quite superb – in the best traditions of this source.
Last week (before I even looked at this disc) I happened to play another, very different cycle of 49 piano pieces, Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Esquisses Op.63, in Steven Osborne’s miraculous Hyperion recording. Readers may think it unfair to compare Burgess with Alkan (or Bach or Shostakovich for that matter – I wonder what their novels were like?) but the most appealing characteristic of the Alkan is not for once the virtuosity required for its execution but the extraordinary and sublime variety experienced across the 49 pieces. The fatal problem with this 80 minute-plus Burgess cycle is the complete absence of that quality. As a Mancunian I really wanted to like The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard. I didn’t.