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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Toccata BV 287 (1921) [10:26]
Elegies BV 249 & 252 (1907, 1909) [35:38]
Sonatina [No 6] super Carmen BV 284 (1920) [7:41]
Toccata BV 29 (1899) transcribed from J. S. Bach, Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564 (c. 1712?) [16:46]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Rec. February 2021, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20237 [70:57]

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 mostly by background, his early study of Bach and later enthusiasm for Liszt 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. His piano music has a characteristic flavour, derived to some extent from late Liszt but with the polyphonic skill he had learned from Bach, and with a harmonic flavour all his own, which is quite addictive once you acquire the taste for it. That, however, is not so easy. His music is very difficult to play. He is reported to have said ‘We must make the texture of our music such that no amateur can lay hands on it,’ and in this he was successful.. His An die Jugend (To Youth) is not, as might expect, a set of teaching pieces for young people, nor are his Sonatinas easy and short. As for the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, to start with that would be like starting one’s appreciation of Beethoven with the Hammerklavier sonata. So, it is not obvious where the newcomer should start. Peter Donohoe’s well-chosen recital might well appear to be the answer.

The Toccata is one of Busoni’s last and most powerful piano works. It is in three sections. The opening Preludio reworks a ferocious and glittering passage from his opera Die Brautwahl (The choosing of the bride) which describes a Jew being burned to death. The Fantasia is a set of free variations on the solemn figure heard at its opening, while the final Ciaccona announces a rising figure in a dotted rhythm and elaborates it in a Lisztian way but with Busoni’s disturbing and ambiguous harmonies.

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 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.) 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 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.

The Sonatina super Carmen, the sixth of Busoni’s sonatinas is a fantasy on themes from Carmen in the Lisztian manner. He 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 Habanera. This piece is really a jeu d’esprit, a piece of light relief for Busoni while working on completing his opera Dr Faust. However, the sombre coda stands in strong contrast to the rest of the work.

Finally, we have another Toccata, one of Busoni’s transcriptions from Bach’s organ works. These come from the earlier part of his career, while he still used a massive style. Like Busoni’s own Toccata, this is in three parts, Preludio, Intermezzo and Fuga. Busoni made his transcription partly to demonstrate how he thought such things should be done and also to rival the transcription by Carl Tausig, which had until then been standard, and which Busoni’s replaced.

Peter Donohoe is a pianist with plenty of technique and plenty of power. I have heard him live twice, once playing the solo part in Busoni’s concerto, and the other playing that in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. On both occasions I was amazed both by his tireless energy and by his fantastic dexterity. He has an interesting essay in the sleevenote explaining how he was introduced to Busoni’s music, which he has been playing for over thirty years. His dedication is obvious. Just to get round the notes in, for example, Busoni’s Toccata or the Carmen Fantasy is a feat in itself. However, he is sometimes rather cavalier with Busoni’s directions and he does not always shape the phrases as do other pianists. In the Toccata he does not clearly distinguish the three simultaneous lines: the crackling flames in the treble, the main theme in the middle register and the pounctuating staccato bass. Both Pöntinen (an underrated Busoni player) and Hamelin do this, and they also shape the phrases better. In the third Elegy Donohoe does not shape the rising chromatic passages in thirds nor build the climax as does Brendel. In the fourth Elegy, the one using the Greensleeves theme, he does not achieve the dare-devil insouciance of Ogdon, throwing off the elaborate decorations as if they were simple, never making it apparent how the main theme constantly moves between the two hands and keeping the whole light and playful while holding the rhythm absolutely steady. The Preludio in the Bach transcription is so forceful it batters the ears. Listen instead to Demidenko who offers more light and shade and a subtler use of the sustaining pedal. I could go on. So, although this recording has been greeted with high praise elsewhere, I would call these performances serviceable rather than outstanding. However, it will do quite nicely as an introduction to Busoni, but enthusiasts should look further, for example to Hamelin’s three disc set, which includes all the mature piano works apart from the Fantasia Contrappuntistica. That leaves an opening for Donohoe, and I would like to hear what he makes of that work, preferably taking up Larry Sitsky’s suggestions of incorporating the improvements in the two-piano version back into the solo version.

The recording is immaculate and the sleevenote, by the Busoni scholar Antony Beaumont, authoritative.

Stephen Barber

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