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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Toccata in A-flat minor, BV 287 (1921) [10:33]
7 Elegien (Nos 1-6, BV 249 (1907); No 7 Berceuse, BV 252 (1909)) [35:38]
Sonatina [No 6] super Carmen, BV 284 (1920) [7:41]
Toccata in C major, BV 29 - Transcription of Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564 by J.S.Bach (1899) [16:46]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Rec. February 2021, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20237 [70:57]

I very much enjoyed reading my colleague Stephen Barber’s frank and erudite review of this disc. I am more than happy to defer to his profound understanding regarding the technical singularities of this music (especially the Elegien). I have also long been an admirer of Busoni, and whilst I can happily follow the score I’m more of a spirit than a letter man, due in part to limiting my own practical musicianship to amateur choirs (and infrequent karaoke crooning). Yet I feel I must take issue with the pejorative overtones of the adjective ‘serviceable’ in the header above his crit. If I do have reservations of my own regarding this disc, I suspect they are borne of subjective preferences reinforced by repeatedly returning to the same two accounts of the Elegien over the last decade. Peter Donohoe’s readings provide much food for thought; there are evidently myriad, as yet untapped interpretative possibilities available to those few brave souls who choose to dabble in Busoni’s convoluted incantations.

The seven Elegien should surely be repertoire staples. In my view, If one excludes Busoni’s transcriptions, this sometimes bizarre (in a good way) sequence constitutes his solo keyboard masterpiece. The title Elegien seemingly has little to do with death and has been taken to refer to the mood and general pace of these works; having said that the technical virtuosity required to play them properly is off the scale - just take a look at the scores! Consequently these pieces are rarely encountered in recitals and have rather been overshadowed by Busoni’s admittedly magnificent transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach. To my mind this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Quite apart from any other considerations Peter Donohoe’s evident commitment to this composer and the relatively high profile nature of this release provides a timely shot in the arm for this music.

How then to describe the Elegien to the innocenti? Frequently nocturnal, even moonlit. Nostalgic of moments and of places. Simultaneously precursors and adaptations of other, arguably more familiar works by Busoni, notably the gargantuan Piano Concerto and his orchestral masterpiece, the brooding Berceuse elegiaque Op 43, a deeply moving précis of those components particular to Busoni’s own, original music. I’ve heard each of the rival discs to which Stephen Barber refers at some point and responded rather differently in some cases. Brendel is a hero to me but his accounts of Nos 3 and 6 (Philips 475 832-2) seem a bit dry notwithstanding the palpable integrity of his performances. Pontinen too has made some great discs but his Elegien (on CPO - review) somehow lack the ‘otherness’ of my two favoured accounts. My benchmark to date has been Hamelin (a magisterial three disc survey of late Busoni piano music on Hyperion CDA 67951-3) but I have also been deeply moved and impressed by David Wilde’s 2007 Delphian recording (DCD 34030- coupled with a monumental account of Liszt’s sonata). Initially I was a little perturbed by the bright, metallic sheen of Wilde’s instrument but this underrated player’s insight and execution are matched by his profound appreciation of these pieces’ mystery and occasional mirth.

Donohoe adopts a more virile, decisive approach to Busoni’s transcendental designs. He finds a wealth of colour in a sequence whose extremes of alluring murk and (faux-?) joyous reflection (I detect a surprising degree of tenderness, even sadness in No 2’s Tarenrtella and to a lesser degree in the extraordinary emergence of Greensleeves in No 3. Donohoe’s decoding of this music seems both refreshing and valid and is presumably informed by forty years of experience engaging with the work of this singular figure (his initation into this hinterland is described in a heartfelt booklet note).

For my money Donohoe’s blend of incendiary virtuosity and spiritual enquiry ensure that his electrifying live (BBC Proms) recording of Busoni’s concerto (with Mark Elder and an energised BBC Symphony Orchestra) remains top of the pile as far as that work is concerned and surely provides sufficient evidence of his credentials in this composer’s music on disc – although Hamelin’s equally sumptuous (and certainly more nuanced) studio account (with the CBSO and the same conductor) on Hyperion comes a very close second. I listen to both discs regularly. It is beyond belief that Warners (to date) have not reissued Donohoe’s recording (originally on EMI CDC 749996-2). More than three decades later he retains his energy levels and even manages to clothe these elusive Elegien with a spectrum of brighter hues which might jar with those familiar with this music. He also benefits from a deluxe Chandos recording.

Donohoe begins and ends this recital with two pieces designated as Toccatas. Inevitably both impose huge technical demands upon the player; emotionally they are poles apart. In a detailed note, the composer’s biographer Antony Beaumont reminds us that the superscription at the head of the score of the A-flat minor work, BV 287 “Non è senza difficoltà che si arriva al fine” (broadly translated as “one does not reach the end without a struggle”) was borrowed and adapted by Busoni from Girolamo Frescobaldi. Nor does this phrase just reflect the work’s searing virtuosity. The bipolar content of its outer sections (it incorporates a Prelude-Fantasia-Chaconne structure) is simultaneously glittering and anxious; Donohoe absolutely has the measure of its barbed psychological extremes as well as its considerable physical challenges. The assertiveness of his playing and the clarity of his projection of the angular inner parts is revelatory and amplified by Jonathan Cooper’s expert engineering. I have never heard Busoni sound more, well ‘Stravinskian’. Revisiting Hamelin’s account one is struck by its similarity; whilst the Canadian perhaps projects the motoric energy in the fast passages with a tad more precision Donohoe in my view presents a less diffuse, more holistic conception of the piece. Both approaches are credible; both accounts are thrilling.

Donohoe chooses to end his disc with two more overt allusions to the music of others in pieces which move away from the weighty nature of BV 287 and the Elegien. After a discerning and wonderfully variegated account of the unashamedly Lisztian Sonatina [No 6] super Carmen, BV 284 he concludes the programme with an open-hearted and radiantly coloured account of the Toccata in C BV 29, Busoni’s blazing transcription of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564. This is another invigorating reading, oozing both luminosity and grandeur. Donohoe elicits sounds from his Steinway which become ever more massive. How must this work have gone down with Donohoe’s fellow Mancs when Busoni himself premiered it at the Free Trade Hall back in 1899!

As a single disc calling card for a still under-appreciated genius this neatly planned recital is a tangible record of the evangelical enthusiasm Peter Donohoe has retained for Busoni over forty years. His approach to the Elegien is distinctive, refreshing, and most certainly worth hearing. The recorded sound is a wonder. It may not be my outright favourite solo Busoni disc (the Hamelin set is unlikely to be surpassed in that regard because of the enormity of the ground covered across its three discs) but this is still without question a disc to which I expect to return repeatedly. I must therefore beg to differ from the view of my learned colleague – Donohoe’s integrity and sense of risk coupled with the immaculate Chandos sound amounts to something which goes way beyond ‘serviceable’.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Stephen Barber

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