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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39 [71:29]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. live, 10-11 March 2017, Symphony Hall, Boston
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
MYRIOS MYR024 [71:29]

The Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein gatecrashed my party in 2018 with a quite extraordinary reading of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, an album made all the more desirable by its bar-raising sonics (Myrios). Not surprisingly, it was one of my top picks that year. Intrigued, I then tried him in The Gershwin Moment - ‘first class’, according to Michael Cookson - but, as accomplished and entertaining as those live performances are, I’m not in a hurry to hear them again. As for the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, he’s impressed me a great deal with some fine Nielsen (BIS), a splendid selection of music by Florent Schmitt (Chandos) and, most recently, with a wonderful pair of Rued Langgaard symphonies, featuring the Wiener Philharmoniker, no less (Dacapo). That, too, was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2018.

I first encountered Busoni’s sprawling concerto in the John Ogdon version, with Daniel Revenaugh and the Royal Philharmonic, taped for EMI in the 1960s. That was followed by Garrick Ohlsson and the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi (Telarc). Then came two more, both conducted by Sir Mark Elder; the first, the 1988 Proms premiere with Peter Donohoe and the BBCSO, the second, with Marc-André Hamelin and the CBSO (EMI and Hyperion respectively). None is ideal, but that Prom performance burns with a conviction that’s hard to match, let alone surpass. Then again, few could be more dreary than Roberto Cappello’s account, with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma led by the usually reliable Francesco La Vecchia (Naxos).

Given this is a generously built concerto for piano, large orchestra and male chorus that plays for around 70 minutes, the potential for disaster is very high (pace La Vecchia). That said, the other recordings mentioned here make a pretty good case for the piece. It helps that the various conductors and soloists don’t overplay their hands, and that, in the main, balances are sensible. Elder is particularly reliable when it comes to music that invites excess, as he so emphatically demonstrated in his live 1996 recordings of Shostakovich’s To October! and Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. Both are object lessons in how to get the best out of works that are all too easily dismissed as overblown, even vulgar. Philip Burwell’s real-world recordings, made in the Royal Festival Hall, are a great help. (This original BBC Music Magazine cover-mount can now be had for pennies online.)

How do Oramo and Gerstein fare? The pianist’s florid opener is certainly arresting, but the close, rather bloated sound is something of a turn-off. I’m perplexed, as it’s engineered by Nick Squire, who did such a magnificent job with Andris Nelsons’ Boston Shostakovich 4 and 11 (Deutsche Grammophon). Factor in Oramo’s injudicious accompaniment - the performance seems to lurch from one extreme to the other in a most disconcerting and unwarranted way - so it’s soon clear this one’s heading for the rocks. As for the playing, it’s hard to believe this is the same supremely disciplined orchestra that’s working so well for Nelsons right now.

Frankly, Gerstein is slumming it here, and despite flashes of excitement - and some eloquence - he shows none of the focus or drive the piece demands if it’s to succeed; which is equally true of Oramo’s lack of direction, in every sense of the phrase. Goodness, it’s a long, very taxing 70 minutes, full of missed opportunities, its fate sealed by an dull chorus that doesn’t come close to the passion and power of Elder’s Albert Hall singers. Judging by the applause, the audience loved Gerstein and Oramo’s Busoni. Perhaps you had to be there ...

Overblown performance and sound; a major disappointment.

Dan Morgan

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