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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)
Quasi Sonatina (2019) [6:30]
Victor Nicoara (piano)
rec. 2019, Meistersaal, Berlin

Of Busoni’s various cycles of piano works, the set of six sonatinas probably gives the fullest impression of his compositional range. They are none of them long – only one lasts a little over ten minutes – and they are mostly also quiet. Yet they have the most adventurous harmony, ingenious contrapuntal devices and that air of mystery which is so characteristic of the composer. Busoni’s elusive yet fascinating musical personality comes through clearly in all of them. They are also mostly very tricky to play: the title may suggest music for beginners but these are nothing of the kind.

In this enterprising recital the sonatinas are interspersed with a few other pieces and presented not in their chronological order, but in a thematic one which leads up to the most complex of them all, the Sonatina seconda, ending then with two extras.

We begin with the second of the three Album leaves. This is a short piece which begins with a fugato on a theme from the Overture to Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, which Busoni had only recently come across. He may have associated it with the sea monster in the opera. A figure from this is briefly developed before the work subsides.

The dedicatee of the Sonatina ad usum infantis Madeline M. Americanae (sonatina for the use of the American child Madeline M.). was probably Madeline Manheim, a friend of Busoni’s son Benvenuto, who would have been about eighteen at the time. This is in five sections, played without a break. The first introduces a chorale theme. There is then a fughetta based on the theme of the opening. The chorale returns and leads to a march with two variations. The fourth movement, very brief, features a beautiful setting of the chorale, and then there is a final Polonaise with two trios. This is the simplest of the sonatinas and is a delightful work.

Next comes the Sonatina brevis in signo Johannis Sebastiani Magni (Short Sonatina in honour of the great Johann Sebastian [Bach]). This was written to conclude the edition of all Busoni’s Bach arrangements and transcriptions which came out in seven volumes in 1918. After an introduction based on descending sevenths, this becomes a very free adaption of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue BWV 905, which in its original form had come earlier in the volume. Here Busoni does not keep to Bach’s language but uses his chromatic extension of it before ending with a return to the falling sevenths.

The Sonatina In Diem Nativatis Christi MCMXVII (Sonatina for Christmas Day 1917). This begins with a gentle theme, firstly in three-part counterpoint, then accompanied first by arpeggios and then by rather faster triplets in both hands. After a Calmo section with a new figure then is a strange chorale and a passage of bell sounds, then then a rough dance and a short fugue which leads to the quiet end.

The Sonatina super Carmen is rather different from the other works here. It is a Lisztian fantasy on themes from Bizet’s opera. Busoni modelled this partly on Liszt’s Fantasy on themes from Don Giovanni. He begins with the market scene, then the Fate motif, José’s flower song and the Habañera. This piece is really a jeu d’esprit, a piece of light relief for Busoni while working on his opera Dr Faust. However, the sombre coda stands in strong contrast to the rest of the work.

The first Albumleaf is a free transcription of Busoni’s Albumleaf for flute and piano, written in 1916 for a friend who was an amateur flautist. In transferring the flute’s melodic line to the piano, Busoni freely changes the octave and adjusts the accompaniment. The climax comes with increasing complexity in the writing, not in any increase in volume.

The first Sonatina is a reworking of Busoni’s own contributions to his An die Jugend (To Youth), a rather unsatisfactory combination of original music and transcriptions. This Sonatina, however, is a success. It begins innocently enough but develops into a play between duple and triple metres and a fughetta and then into a vertiginous passage, which, however, is marked Allegretto elegante dolce e leggero, featuring whole tone scales and the duple and triple metres running at the same time. Eventually this subsides but the Epilogo has some new tricks before it is through.

After this extraordinary piece there are two short ones in contrast. The third Albumleaf is based on a severe chorale, Bach’s version of Christ lag in Todesbanden from the collection BWV 278, transposed down and with chromatic alterations to the harmony. There are four variations of varying character. Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) is very different. The French title (and the fact that it was published by a French publisher) may lead one to expect an impressionist work. It is not that, but it is cheerful, with good tunes and impressions of bells and, at the beginning, snowflakes falling.

The climax of the programme is rightly, the Sonatina seconda, Busoni’s most daring piano work, with sudden changes of mood and complex writing. Eventually, out of the opening murk, a dotted theme emerges and then a grim march with strange harmonies. A cadenza leads to a furious passage. The second section develops a theme featuring a falling semitone before the march returns and ends the work in darkness. Busoni was to draw on this work in his Dr Faust, the opera which is his masterpiece, and it shares the same mysterious and menacing atmosphere as that work.

Finally, we have two encores, both of which are first recordings. The Sonatina quasi sonata is a sketch which lasts less than a minute; Busoni was to draw on it in later works. Then Victor Nicoara demonstrates his own prowess as a composer in his Quasi sonatina, which he says is ‘an attempt to distil the spirit and compositional procedures of the works I recorded into one piece.’ It does indeed sound Busonian, and it is no criticism to say that it does not have the mystery and menace of the Sonatina seconda.

This is Victor Nicoara’s debut recital and it seems admirable to me. He has carefully followed Busoni’s directions, in particular noting that the climaxes and complex passages of these works are rarely loud. He keeps the lines separate when they should be, and only once did I notice slight blurring. Above all, he has entered into their spirit: he plays to demonstrate their qualities and not as showpieces. The recording is good and the sleeve notes by Nicoara himself interesting. (They would be easier to read were they not printed entirely in capital letters.)

Competition in the Sonatinas is limited. Paul Jacobs’ set on Arbiter, part of a valuable mixed recital, dates from 1978. Roland Pöntinen’s 1999 set on CPO has been deleted. Marc-André Hamelin’s set on Hyperion is part of his three disc survey of Busoni’s piano works. All Busoni enthusiasts will want this, but for those new to the composer or wanting to explore just the Sonatinas, this will do very nicely.

Stephen Barber

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