is nothing quite like the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni: muscular, quirky,
intellectual but energetic—and exhilarating to hear. Born to musician
parents from Trieste, then part of the Austrian Empire, Busoni (1866-1924) had
an international career as piano virtuoso, composer, conductor and teacher
(whose pupils ranged from Percy Grainger to Edgard Varese). A celebrity in his
lifetime, he was remembered for a while after his death mostly as a transcriber
of Bach for grand piano, but he is now admired especially for his grandiose
Piano Concerto (five movements with choral finale), his opera Doktor
Faust, and a few orchestral works like the haunting, near-atonal Beceuseélégiaque.
His many works for solo piano have appeared infrequently on disc, but now
Marc-André Hamelin offers a hefty 196 minutes of it in a 3-CD Hyperion set with
suitably impressive sound.
Hamelin is an ideal interpreter of this music, being a pretty
muscular and intellectual pianist himself. For demonstrations of both
Busoni's ingenuity and Hamelin's distinctive playing, the purchaser of these
discs might like to start with one of Busoni's fantasias on a famous piece of
music. For example, try the Elegy No. 4, subtitled TurandotsFrauengemach
but based on "Greensleeves." (Busoni would later use the tune in his opera
of Turandot, predating Puccini's
by several years.) Hamelin plunges into the melody with tremendous flair and
gusto, especially its second strain, while bringing out the distinctive features
of the arrangement itself, including some odd harmonies. Or consider Hamelin's
gorgeous rendition of the Sonatina No. 6, a "Chamber-Fantasia" on themes
from Carmen. Longer and more
structurally and emotionally complex are a brooding and powerful Fantasia on themes of J.S. Bach and a set of variations on
Chopin's somber Prelude in C minor (the one that Rachmaninoff also chose for
variations). But equally characteristic of Busoni—and of Hamelin's
brilliance — are a couple of Mozart-derived pieces: a brief "variation-study" of Don Giovanni's Serenade and a more eccentric but
commanding 4-minute "Gigue, bolero and variations." Hamelin is especially
dazzling in this scherzo-like piece.
There are many more "takeoffs" from other composers in this set—and quite a few derivations from Busoni himself, as in the Elegy No. 2, "All'Italia!" based on two passages from his Piano Concerto. Some of Busoni's sources and inspirations are fairly obscure, like an American Indian "Harvest Song" and "Diary" based on melodies gathered by an ethnomusicologist he met in the U.S. Much of the Erntelied (Harvest Song) sounds as if it could be by Charles Ives, with its American-style folk tune caught up in swirls of arpeggios in another key, while the four-movement Tagesbuch is fascinatingly varied in mood. A lovely impressionistic piece, Nuit de Noël, contains a treatment of an obscure (to me, anyhow) Sicilian Christmas carol.
A number of works in the set are essentially exercises—etudes or "training pieces," as in the case of a prelude which the booklet
essay describes as "a double-note study in both hands alternating mostly
thirds and fifths, but played without recourse to the third finger." But such
works are also a pleasure to hear: strikingly original, balanced on a cusp
between Romanticism and Modernism, and exciting when rendered with such
commitment by a virtuoso like Hamelin. One can hear the influence of Franz Liszt—especially the later, more experimental but not particularly "Romantic"
piano music—transmuted through a love of Bach and Mozart (the former's
intellectual rigor and depth of feeling, the latter's wit) into something very
Twentieth-Century, pointing at times in the direction of Prokofiev, while
largely bypassing the Wagner-Schoenberg path to Modernism. The remarkable Toccata
from 1920 (divided into a Preludio, Fantasia
and Ciaccona) is a good
representative of both Busoni's late style and Harmelin's engagement with
"Late" in the title of this collection means the last 17
years of the composer's life. The music is presented roughly chronologically
on the discs: CD #1 is mostly music of 1907-9; #2 is 1910-21; #3 is mostly work
of the early 1920s, much of it published in 1925, soon after Busoni's death.
And this is by no means a complete edition—Busoni was prolific. But truly
everything on these discs is worth hearing—the listener can spend many hours
getting to know this music—and Hamelin seems dedicated to capturing the
special flavor of each piece—not to mention possessing the rather impressive
skills needed to play this music in the first place. Hyperion's engineers
brilliantly capture the piano sound: the full range from delicate scales to
thunderous climaxes. Elaborate counterpoint or cresting waves of arpeggios
against an underlying melody are all clearly audible without edginess or the
least bit of murk. A lengthy and interesting program booklet by Quebec professor
Marc-André Roberge completes the package.