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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Albumblätter 2, BV 289 (1921) [1:49]
Sonatina No. 3 ‘Ad usum infantis Madeline M* Americanae’, BV 268 (1915) [6:46]
Sonatina No. 5 ‘Brevis in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni’, BV 280 (1919) [5:40]
Sonatina No. 4 ‘Diem Nativitatis Christi MCMXVII, BV 274 (1917) [8:29]
Sonatina No. 6 ‘Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen’, BV 284 (1920) [7:38]
Albumblätter 1, BV 289 (1917) [3:01]
Sonatina No. 1, BV 257 (1910) [10:57]
Albumblätter 3, BV 289 (1921) [5:48]
Nuit de Noël, BV 251 (1908) [4:00]
Sonatina Seconda, No. 2, BV 259 (1912) [9:06]
Sonatina quasi Sonata (Fragment), BV 275 (1914) [0:55]
Victor NICOARA (b. 1984)
12. Quasi Sonatina (2019) [6:30]
Victor Nicoara (piano)
rec. 2019, Meistersaal, Berlin

This new album entitled Busoni ‘The 6 Sonatinas’ comprises of twelve solo piano works, including the set of Drei Albumblätter (Three Album Leaves) BV 289 and of course the featured works here, the six Sonatinas. Nicoara has chosen late piano works which span the period 1908-21, the final sixteen years of Busoni’s life. In addition to the Sonatinas and Albumblätter, Nicoara has included both Busoni’s attractive yet rather undemanding miniature Nuit de Noël, the small fragment Sonatina quasi Sonata and one of his own compositions.

Romanian Victor Nicoara is a name I was not aware of having encountered prior to receiving this album. He initially studied in Budapest, progressing to the Royal College of Music, London, where he graduated with a Master’s degree in both piano and composition. Now settled in Berlin, Nicoara is a musician I will be certainly be seeking out in the future.

Busoni was born in Tuscany of parents of Austrian and Corsican heritage. Often working in Germany, Busoni adopted Berlin as his home in 1894. Blessed with a remarkable intellect, he became a formidable piano virtuoso as well as a composer, conductor and educator, although his music seems to be known more by reputation than actual performances. Thankfully, there are various recordings of his works available and the most likely Busoni works to be encountered are his piano transcriptions, mainly those of J.S. Bach for organ/keyboard, chorale preludes or other instrumental music. In addition, Busoni made piano transcriptions of works by a number of other composers including Liszt, Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven.

One of Busoni’s best known original compositions is his colossal five movement Piano Concerto from 1904, which takes around seventy minutes to perform and requires an orchestra of over a hundred players, culminating in a final movement that includes a male chorus. Although the Piano Concerto is not performed in concert too often, there are several recordings available in the catalogue. Another renowned work from Busoni’s substantial body of solo piano works is the fearsomely titled Fantasia contrappuntistica (1910-21), the composer’s personal tribute to J.S. Bach, based on his unfinished masterwork Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080.

As a composer, Busoni couldn’t settle on any particular model and his creative mind fought against academic convention and traditions as if pursuing an indomitable quest for the potentiality of musical expression. Unsurprisingly, Busoni’s early compositional style was in a late-Romantic vein inspired by the tradition of the Austro-German masters Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner. He began to develop a style which included the neo-baroque, especially influenced by J.S. Bach, and also neo-classicism, viewing Mozart as the epitome of classical values. Evidently Busoni had an antipathy to Expressionism, yet he was friendly with Schoenberg and some of his music even borders on atonality. The compositional period of the six Sonatinas is 1910-20, a decade that Nicoara describes as being for Busoni a period of ‘experimentation and synthesis’. They are wide-ranging works that can evoke a variety of images; for example, music writer Mark Morris found suggestions of Debussy in the Sonatina No. 4 and Schoenberg in the Sonatina No. 2.

From the first note to the last, one senses that Nicoara’s chosen piano programme is a labour of love. These are most assured performances and Nicoara is very much at one with Busoni’s sound world, entirely in control of the music’s challenges, seeming to reach right to the heart of the scores. No doubt there are performances of these works with additional drive and volume, yet few players will demonstrate as much sensitivity and nuance as Nicoara does here.

Of the six sonatinas I find especially absorbing the Sonatina No. 4 named ‘diem nativitatis Christi MCMXVII’ , written to mark Christmas 1917 against the backdrop of Busoni’s exile in neutral Switzerland where he felt isolated, disconnected and also weakened by the horrors of the continuing World War. Its dedication is to Enescu’s Boston-born son Benvenuto who was called up by the USA for war service. Nicoara excels in this predominately introspective Sonatina of emotional restraint, a work which also the evokes the peal of bells. The only real disruption to its tranquil beauty is a contrasting outburst of angst with a rustic dance element which soon subsides, allowing the return of the prevailingly wistful mood.

Another work I keep returning to is the 1920 Sonatina No. 6 titled ‘Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen’, Busoni’s opera paraphrase from Bizet’s much-loved operatic masterwork. Bizet’s recognisable and hummable themes, notably the alluring Habanera and the lyrical beauty of the Flower Song would almost seem out of place on this album, were it not for the subtlety and earnestness Busoni employs. Wickedly demanding, this striking score doesn’t faze Nicoara, who produces a gratifying range of keyboard colour.

The final work is Victor Nicoara’s own recent composition the Quasi Sonatina that he describes as ‘an attempt by my own hand to distil the spirit and computational procedures of the works into one piece’. This enjoyable and accessible work has a distinctly Russian flavour that reminded me at times of Scriabin and Myaskovsky and even evokes the nation’s fondness for bells.

The engineering team achieves satisfying sound from the studio at Meistersaal, an historic and protected building in Berlin. Nicoara points out that he is playing the ‘characterful old Steinway - once used by Wilhelm Kempff to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas’. He has written his own programme notes that provide an interesting personal insight into Busoni’s music but some additional information on the works themselves would have been preferable. With Victor Nicoara in such compelling form, Busoni admirers need not hesitate and surely the curious piano music enthusiast will enjoy making many discoveries here, too.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stephen Barber

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