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Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Music - Volume 9
Una festa di villaggio, BV 185 (1881) [23:36]
Racconti fantastici BV 100 (1878) [9:43]
Danze antiche BV 126 (1878-9) [11:48]
Gavotte BV 152 (1880) [3:13]
Suite campestre BV 81 (1878) [13:05]
Cinq Pièces BV 71 (1877) [10:35]
Wolf Harden (piano)
rec. 2016, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales
NAXOS 8.573751 [72:00]

Busoni’s piano works, indeed all his works, ought to be better known and not treated as the province only of specialists. However, he did not make it easy for himself. He wrote no symphony. His piano concerto is the most difficult in the repertoire and also requires a male chorus. His largest orchestral work otherwise is a suite from his rarely performed opera Die Brautwahl, which, though it has the strength of a symphony, is almost unknown. His smaller orchestral works are both short and strange. As for his piano music, most of it varies from the very difficult to the extremely difficult, and this includes his suite An die Jugend (To Youth) which you might have thought was intended for young players. His publications often mix up original works with transcriptions in a confusing way. His largest piano work, the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, is almost unplayable and exists in four different versions. His last and finest work, the opera Doktor Faust, he left unfinished. His reputation as a virtuoso pianist and transcriber of Bach has overshadowed that of him as a composer.

Yet he is a fascinating one, and, once you have understood his idiom, you find yourself increasingly drawn in. His characteristic flavour is slightly melancholy, with odd twists and turns of harmony which are characteristically his. You can hear them also in some of the work of the next generation in Germany, such as Hindemith and Kurt Weill, and composers have continued to admire his music. There is also a rhythmic vitality which owes something to his Italian roots.

Wolf Harden is now near the end of what is the most comprehensive survey of Busoni’s piano music ever made. Most of the few pianists who do play his music have concentrated on his later works, from the Elegies of 1908 onwards, which are admittedly the best. This applies to the three-disc set from Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion and the continuing discs (three so far) by Roland Pöntinen on CPO, both fine series. Neither of them have (yet) tackled the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which Harden included on the first disc of his series, which gives some sense of his ambition. Most of these have been reviewed in MWI, and have warmly received. And he is including the whole range of Busoni’s piano works, including those from his teenage years, which are what we have here.

Busoni wrote the works on this disc between the ages of eleven and fifteen. He made his first concert appearance at the age of twelve so was clearly a precious composer and pianist, even a prodigy. All the works here are competently and fluently written and you can tell from their catalogue numbers that they had many predecessors. (The catalogue of Busoni’s works was prepared by Kindermann, though he actually preferred his numbers to be shown as BV, for Busoni-Verzeichnis, rather than his name. Busoni’s own opus numbers are confused and confusing.) The idiom for most of them hovers somewhere between Mendelssohn and Schumann, with occasional touches of Bach. Busoni’s admiration for Liszt came later, and there is no trace of it here.

Una festa di villaggio, which opens the programme, was in fact the latest music to be composed. It is an attractive suite in six numbers portraying preparations for a village fête, followed by a march, a church service with a chorale, two dances and finally night. The Racconti fantastici which follow, are three pieces illustrating fairy tales. The opening Duello is a two-part invention, Kleines Zaches is a dwarf with magical powers, inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann, sounding like Prokofiev before his time, and La caverna di Steenfoll is a sinister tale about a fisherman making a pact with the devil, a dark and brooding number and the only one to suggest Chopin (the B flat minor sonata).

The Danze antiche are four dances in eighteenth century forms, but sounding as if heard through the early nineteenth century, in a rather Beethovenian idiom. The single Gavotte is rather similar. The Suite campestre is in six movements which are claimed in the sleeve note to be “among the most distinctive and engaging of Busoni’s youthful works”. I quote this since my impression was just the opposite: I found them the least memorable pieces here. The final set of Cinq Pièces is the earliest music here, sounding like Bach as heard by Brahms.

Wolf Harden offers workmanlike pianism with a light touch, very necessary given the rather heavy piano writing throughout. Occasionally I fancied I detected a slight rhythmic uncertainty, understandable given that he must have much less experience with these works than with the later and greater Busoni. The recording, made in Wyastone Concert Hall, is excellent, and the sleeve note, in English only, is brief but informative. I hope Harden goes on to record the preludes, studies and exercises from Busoni’s Klavierübung, only some of which have previously been recorded.

Those collecting this series need not hesitate. Others may prefer to begin with the later works, which come earlier in the series – it would have been more helpful if Naxos put the names of the works rather than volume numbers on the spine. But if you want to know where Busoni started from, go to volume 9.

Stephen Barber



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