The Europadisc Review
Busoni - Elegies, Toccata, Sonatina super Carmen, etc.
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Almost a century on from his death, and 36 years after Anthony Beaumont’s landmark study of his original compositions, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) is still best remembered – almost to the exclusion of his many other activities – as a transcriber of Bach for the piano. Although several impressive recordings of his own music have graced the catalogue since the 1980s, such is the tenacity of the Bach-Busoni association that it’s still good to welcome anything that raises his profile as a composer. Peter Donohoe’s new disc of piano works is partic... read more
Almost a century on from his death, and 36 years after Anthony Beaumont’s landmark study of his original compositions, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) is still best remembered – almost to the exclusion o... read more
Busoni - Elegies, Toccata, Sonatina super Carmen, etc.
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Almost a century on from his death, and 36 years after Anthony Beaumont’s landmark study of his original compositions, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) is still best remembered – almost to the exclusion of his many other activities – as a transcriber of Bach for the piano. Although several impressive recordings of his own music have graced the catalogue since the 1980s, such is the tenacity of the Bach-Busoni association that it’s still good to welcome anything that raises his profile as a composer. Peter Donohoe’s new disc of piano works is particularly attractive given his long and fruitful association with Busoni’s music, not least his live 1988 Proms performance of the monumental Piano Concerto with Mark Elder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (currently unavailable but well worth seeking out on its old EMI release).
For Busoni, a child prodigy who went on to become one of the most thoughtful and visionary musical figures of the early 20th century, transcription and composition nevertheless went hand-in-hand. His own music is constantly allusive, both to his own output and to the works of others, while his transcriptions are transformative in the Lisztian tradition (at eleven years of age he had met Liszt; two years previously he had met Brahms and Hanslick in Vienna, while many years later, sheltering in Switzerland during World War I, he encountered, among others, Joyce and Lenin!). Donohoe ends this new Chandos album with Busoni’s 1899 transcription of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV564 – less well-known than his versions of Bach’s solo violin Chaconne and the notorious Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but no less dazzling or demanding. Donohoe approaches the transcription very much in the spirit of Busoni, rather than attempting to map onto it the stylistic revisionism of the Early Music movement. The bold, often dense textures demand as much, as do Busoni’s own detailed performance indications, and Bach’s great organ work becomes in Donohoe’s hands a monumentally joyous example of late 19th-century virtuoso pianism, achieving particular expressive depth in the central section (labelled ‘Intermezzo’ by Busoni).
The Bach Toccata provides useful context for the latest work here, Busoni’s own Toccata of 1920, composed in the space of five days on his post-war return to his musical base in Berlin. Headed by a (mis)quote from Frescobaldi (pioneer of the Toccata genre), like Bach’s BWV564 it is cast in three main sections, of which the first is a sparkling Prelude marked ‘quasi Presto’ that Donohoe paces just right, brisk but not frantic; it draws on material from Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl (1912), and in its turn fed into his final, uncompleted operatic masterpiece, Doktor Faust, to which the Toccata is one of several ‘satellite works’. The third section is a Chaconne in speeded-up sarabande rhythm. But it is the central Fantasia, itself comprised of seven brief sections, which takes us to the heart of Busoni’s late style, with its musing, introspective textures and ventures into polytonality. Donohoe’s performance is intensely rewarding, delving deep into the music, revelling in its mystery while maintaining a strong underlying momentum, and aided by Chandos’s close, detailed but not unduly dry recording perspective.
The other main work here is the cycle of seven piano Elegies – a set of six composed in 1907 plus the Berceuse of 1909 –miniatures with poetic associations to the ancient classics and the Renaissance rather than laments in the more customary sense. Each is dedicated to a promising young pianist, three of whom (Gottfried Galston, Egon Petri and Michael Zadora) went on to forge particularly successful careers, with Petri becoming of Busoni’s most important disciple and advocate. Indeed, it is the second Elegy, ‘All’ Italia!’, dedicated to Petri and with roots in Busoni’s Piano Concerto, that almost steals the show with its tremendous virtuosic swirls of sound and jaunty central tarantella. The third, which juxtaposes a monumental chorale theme with more probing, philosophical passages (‘like a discourse between Martin Luther and Sigmund Freud’, to quote Beaumont’s excellent booklet notes) also makes a profound impression. The fourth and fifth pieces are related to Busoni’s incidental music for a Max Reinhardt production of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot, which Busoni subsequently turned into a two-act companion piece for his one-act opera Arlecchino (1917); the fourth Elegy is effectively a fantasy (with a typically Busonian twist at the end) on the traditional melody ‘Greensleeves’. The sixth Elegy has links to the earlier Die Brautwahl, while Busoni was particularly proud of the Berceuse, with its mesmerising Aida-like octave interplay and lilting rhythms, which he adapted for small orchestra as the Berceuse élégiaque following the death of his mother. All these pieces are performed by Donohoe with the fine combination of virtuosity, thoughtfulness and textural sensitivity that Busoni’s music requires, though the close recording means that the sixth piece doesn’t quite live up to its billing (Beaumont again) as ‘perhaps the quietest waltz ever written’.
The cherry on the cake is Busoni’s Sixth Sonatina, a ‘Chamber-Fantasy’ on Bizet’s Carmen, quite distinct from many of the better-known fantasies on this perennial operatic favourite, plumbing the expressive depths of Don José’s ‘Flower Song’ while making formidable technical demands in its brilliantly extrovert reimaginings of Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ and the bullfighters’ entry from Act 4. Like the disc as a whole, it’s a real treat, and by no means just for lovers of virtuoso piano playing. With a revealing performer’s note from Donohoe alongside Anthony Beaumont’s authoritative commentary, this is a thoroughly recommendable release with performances to savour again and again.
The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column
Last Orders on the Last Night? 29th July 2021
29th July 2021
‘Tradition is the illusion of permanence,’ maintains the title character in Woody Allen’s film Deconstructing Harry (1997). And you don’t need to be a fan of Allen as a filmmaker or as a person to recognise the grain of truth contained in this bon mot. In a world that seems ever-changing, tradition gives us something apparently fixed on which to cling on, a safe harbour in turbulent times, a point of reference when everything else seems bewilderingly strange. Yet such certainty is illusory both because, as the world about us continues to change, the traditions we cling to become ever further removed from reality, and because the traditions themselves change (more or less subtly) over time so that – as in a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ – they end up bearing little relation to how they started out. Put bluntly, because everything changes over time, even the most jealously... read more