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Feruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Elegien (Elegies) (1907, 1909) [38:30]
An die Jugend (To Youth) (1909) [23:04]
Carlo Grante (piano)
rec. 2013, Studio Glanzing, Vienna.
MUSIC AND ARTS CD-1300 [61:00]

The piano music of Busoni forms the most considerable body of work for the instrument in the German tradition between Brahms and Hindemith. Although Busoni was himself Italian by nationality and largely by background, his early study of Bach led him to gravitate increasingly towards German music, and indeed in his last years he was a professor in Berlin and his final and greatest work was an opera on the very German subject of Faust.

The seven Elegies stand at the threshold of his mature style. These pieces are not all by any means what we normally call elegiac. Some are transcriptions of earlier work, much revised. Others are new pieces which begin charting out his new territory, marked by the use of unusual scales, fluid tonality and a kind of pianistic writing which eschews the massiveness of the piano concerto or some of the Bach transcriptions, in favour of a new lucidity and a kind of gauntness which requires great delicacy to achieve the effects the composer wants. Extreme virtuosity is sometimes employed but it is of the flexible rather than the transcendental kind. The first, ‘Nach der Wending’ (Recueillement) (After the turning: contemplation) exemplifies these qualities and could be a kind of motto for the set. The second, ‘All’Italia! in modo napolitano’ (Off to Italy! in Neapolitan style) is in fact a reworking of the similar movement from Busoni’s piano concerto, beginning, however, with a near quotation from the late Liszt pieces entitled La lugubre gondola associated with Wagner’s death. This leads to a brilliant tarantella, notated on three staves with the theme in the middle and accompanying figures shooting off both over and under it, the three-handed effect which Liszt took over and perfected from Thalberg.

The fourth piece is a chorale prelude based on the Lutheran chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, which is varied in a very Lisztian way but with ambiguous tonality and an unsettled feeling. (Busoni was to reuse this piece to preface his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, one of his most imposing works). This is followed by ‘Turandots Frauengemach’ (Turandot’s room), based on the incidental music Busoni wrote for a production of the original Gozzi play, which, by the way, long predates Puccini’s opera. To the surprise of English listeners, after some preliminaries this features none other than the tune of Greensleeves, set in a fantastically virtuosic setting like a jewel. In the fifth piece, ‘Die Nächtlichen’ (The Nocturnals) Busoni deploys his new scales to create a constantly floating and shifting tonality with which he creates a very quiet waltz.

The sixth and originally final piece ‘Erscheinung’ (apparition) is a study for a scene in Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl (The choosing of the bride) in which a vision of Albertine, the heroine, appears at the window of a deserted tower. There are two themes and an intervening passage which uses the whole tone scale. A little later he added the seventh piece, ‘Berceuse’. A rocking theme introduces a slow melody which leads to a bitonal passage, and then to an elaborated version of the original theme, higher up on the piano. This piece perhaps best integrates the different ideas behind the elegies. Busoni later expanded this piece into a work for small orchestra in memory of his mother, and titled it Berceuse élégiaque, showing, among other things, the high value he placed on it.

An die Jugend is a rare bird even among recitals of Busoni’s piano music. The title, literally To Youth, suggests a set of teaching, or at least simple pieces, but that is not what Busoni had in mind at all. Rather, he was appealing to the spirit of adventure and experimentation, and the title might be better understood as something along the lines of ‘To the young in heart’. It is a strange but characteristic mixture of original work and free transcriptions. The first Book, Preludietto, Fughetta ed Esercizio, wholly original, starts innocently enough but by the time we get to the Esercizio we find that the right hand is in 4/4 but the left in 3/4, and that while the left hand is playing the bass of a waltz, the right hand is shooting off in all directions with passages based on the whole tone scale.

Book 2, Preludio, Fuga e Fuga figurata, harks back to Busoni’s years of preoccupation with Bach, including editing and arranging his works. This is a version of the D major prelude and fugue from Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier, starting with relatively straight versions of the two pieces, but then showing that they can be combined and played simultaneously. This is more ingenious than satisfying.

Book 3, Giga, Bolero e Variazione, is based on two works by Mozart, the Kleine Gigue for piano K. 574 and the fandango from Act III of The Marriage of Figaro, though this second actually uses a pre-existing theme. Busoni freely reworks both pieces and distorts the harmonies creating a new language which both is and is not Mozart.

Book 4, Introduzione e Capriccio (Paganinesco); Epilogo, begins with an adaptation of Paganini’s Caprice no. 11 and continues with an adaptation of Caprice no 15. These are very much in the spirit of Liszt’s Paganini studies, exploiting pianistic virtuosity rather than compositional innovations. The ‘Epilogo’ is entirely original work and recalls the Esercizio from Book 1.

At one time Busoni contemplated adding a fifth Book to An die Jugend, which would have brought it up to date. This would have contained Schoenberg’s piano piece Op. 11 no. 2 in both its original form and in Busoni’s ‘Concert interpretation’ of it. When Schoenberg learned of this proposal he was horrified at the implied criticism of his own piece and Busoni dropped the idea.

I have to admit that, for all its interest, An die Jugend is not a satisfactory whole. Busoni seems to have come to think so too. Although he did not withdraw it, he later reworked his original contributions, namely Book 1 and the Epilogo from Book 4, into a new work, the first of his six Sonatinas. No more than An die Jugend itself are these teaching pieces; in fact they are among the most substantial of his contributions to the piano repertoire.

Carlo Grante is an old hand at Busoni, having recorded a number of his works, including the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, though usually in combination with other composers. As well as the considerable technique these works require, he understands their sometimes complex textures, in particular not letting the thick basses overwhelm the sound, and being sparing of the pedal, so that Busoni’s often strange harmonies come through. He does not include the small revisions to the text which Busoni gave to Egon Petri and which Antony Beaumont notes in his book on the composer; these have yet to be included in any printed edition. He reverses the order of the middle two Books of An die Jugend; his sleeve-note records the fact but does not explain it. Otherwise the notes are good, and the recording full and rich.

Although there are a few other recordings of the Elegies, notably those by Hamelin and Pöntinen, there are far fewer of An die Jugend. Most pianists who play any of it tend to choose only Book 3; this includes the two I have mentioned. So even Busoni enthusiasts who already have a version of the Elegies should be interested in this. Others might well start their exploration of Busoni here. I look forward to Grante’s take on the Sonatinas.

Stephen Barber

An earlier pressing of this disc, with catalogue number CD-1290, is faulty and omits the end of An die Jugend. Those possessing a copy of this version should contact Music and Arts for a replacement.

Nach der Wending (Recueillement) [4:44]
All Italia! in modo napolitano [7:40]
Meine Seele bangt und hopfft zu Dir (Choralvorspiel) [8:52]
Turandots Frauengemach (Intermezzo) [3:58]
Die Nächtlichen (Waltz) [3:21]
Erscheinung (Nocturne) [5:56]
Berceuse [4:04]
An die Jugend

Book 1, Preludietto, Fughetto ed Esercizio [5:59]
Book 2, Preludio, Fuga e Fuga figurata [4:32]
Book 3, Giga, Bolero e Variazione [5:11]
Book 4, Introduzione e Capriccio (Paganinesco); Epilogo [11:31]

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