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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Concerto (1906)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Recorded live at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, 10-11 March 2017

Once you meet Busoni’s Piano Concerto, you don’t tend to forget it. Comparisons range between a many-headed dragon, a Protean monster and a raging Leviathan. It’s nearly 75 minutes long (its central movement alone is nearly 25!), requires a monstrous range of orchestral and pianistic effects, and culminates in a male chorus singing a mystical hymn to Allah. It helps if you have a marathon runner on the podium and Hercules playing the piano, and its sheer scale has earned it as much revulsion as admiration over the years.

I’ve only ever heard it played live once (in the 2012 Edinburgh Festival), and I don’t expect to hear it again any time soon; but what I heard that night made a huge impression on me. Kenneth Hamilton’s booklet notes for that concert described the concerto (jokingly?) as the Wagner’s Ring of the piano concerto repertoire, which is hard to dispute, so any recording of it is quite an event. It hasn’t fared badly on disc when you consider that it only attracts a certain kind of pianist, but for my money this performance can be ranked among the best.

This is the first time in its 175 year history that the Boston Symphony Orchestra have played the piece. I can’t imagine Sakari Oramo has had much acquaintance with it in his time, either, but both orchestra and conductor take to it with a great deal of flair, showing skill in the playing and freshness in the interpretation that the work rarely gets (or, arguably, deserves!). You get that right from the opening, a dark sweep from the strings, led by a liquid set of violins and underpinned by majestic basses that add atmospherically to the music’s dark colour, something that also tints the winds that pick up the opening theme. Oramo’s direction then pulls the music back at the string fanfare that prepares the way for the piano’s first entry, thereby spotlighting it and making it even more exciting than normal.

The second movement, the “pezzo giocoso” is more volcanic than any other concerto Scherzo, with manic shards of rhythm and a keyboard part from which it is easy to imagine sparks flying; but the orchestral highlights stand out too, such as the sinister and sinuous clarinet solo and the Neapolitan-style percussion that adds its own sparkle of wit. They’re even more remarkable in the fourth movement Tarantella, the Scherzo’s twin sister, which whirls with maniacal energy and fizzes with umpteen unexpected touches. Oramo ensures that the orchestra is never just the plus-one here, and their contribution is as important as the pianist’s in this performance’s success.

Gerstein stand in for Hercules at the keyboard, and he’s fantastic. However, his playing is characterised as much by agility and athleticism than by its weight and power. Those cyclopean chords with which the piano makes its first entry, for example, have bounce and air around them rather than just the pile-driving hammer blows that others produce. Here he’s a mountain lion rather than an elephant, but then turns the keyboard into an alluring shower of notes in the softer passages that follow, showcasing the chameleonic quality that makes him special as a pianist and which is also utterly essential for a vast work like this one. He’s then like uncontained mercury as he slithers all over the second movement, and then puts in some properly thunderous chords in the movement’s final section; while his fingers can hardly have sat still during the Tarantella, so dynamic is the music that spills from them.

Everything finds its focus in the work’s mysterious heart, the dark “pezzo serioso”, which is nothing less than an exploration of the creative artist’s soul. Oramo does a great job of bringing out the dark hue of the orchestral tone, and Gerstein seems to shade back the ostentation of his playing so as to fit with the mood of the piece. There are moments of extraordinary violence in the movement’s dark centre, where the piano thunders out octaves against the orchestra’s implacable determination, but this eventually settles into some delightfully sweet piano playing which tames the beast and paves the way for a coda of deceptive lightness and allure.

But the work, and this performance, finds its culmination in the Cantico finale, which begins with mystical, purple harmonies floating up from Gerstein’s keyboard, which find their match in both the orchestral winds and percussion before the chocolaty sound of the Tanglewood Men sets a seal on things, slightly breathy at first (hardly surprising when they’ve sat on stage doing nothing for the previous hour), but eventually growing into a sound of multilayered power, something which the piano then sets the seal on with its final (utterly bonkers!) set of flurrying octaves.

Busoni’s artistic vision finds it summation here, too, unifying the themes of earlier movements and fulfilling them in this finale in a way that very few symphonies ever manage, never mind concertos. It’s extraordinarily impressive, and stands as a rebuff to anyone who thinks the concerto superficial or merely bombastic. No: this is great art, and this is a great recording of it that believes in it utterly.

It’s live, and the audience bursts into applause at the end, but otherwise they’re extremely well behaved and there is no extraneous noise that I could pick up.

John Ogdon’s EMI recording of this piece, the first, has long been the benchmark, but it now sounds unnecessarily heavy in places, not to be welcomed in a work that, heaven knows, is already weighty enough. I love Garrick Ohlsson’s Cleveland recording, the first one I heard, and I confess I haven’t heard Marc-André Hamelin’s CBSO recording with Mark Elder. However, among those I’ve heard, Gerstein’s is the best, partly for its virtuosity, but mostly for its surprising versatility and even, in places, lightness, not to mention the recorded sound that allows the orchestra to play its part effectively, too.

The Myrios packaging, by the way, is especially luxurious: a cardboard sleeve encloses the CD in its own individual cardboard case, together with a booklet that consists of two very thorough (if slightly esoteric) essays, one about the composer’s work and one specifically about the concerto. Sung texts and translations are included too, as are biographies of Gerstein, Oramo and the orchestra and chorus. It’s as if Myrios have decided that this work gets recorded so rarely that you might as well do it right when it you get the chance.

And do it right this whole release certainly does. The performance is so well thought-through and so expertly performed, as well as so perfectly recorded, that this must now surely qualify as one of the top choices for this work. Hopefully it will encourage many others to take the plunge and explore this multi-faceted behemoth. Like any cliff-face, it’s intimidating at first, but renders many rewards when you work at it, and in this company those rewards are all the richer. I’d be very surprised if this isn’t one of my discs of 2019.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Michael Cookson



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