Notes and Editorial Reviews
Two neglected strong explorations from the neglected Busoni played with great expression and conviction.
Ferruccio Busoni is a difficult figure to pin down. Extremely influential, yet he is hardly performed to the extent he deserves. His music is often adventurous without being avant-garde in ways in which that of many of his contemporaries was. Competent on the violin by the age of four and a veritable 'veteran' by 12, Busoni's first compositions date from the early 1870s, when he was as young as six. With an amazing intellect, memory and an obviously sensitive disposition, his father's wish to exploit the young prodigy and a dislike of the provincialism of recently-unified Italy drove Busoni to Germany. There amid
its wider musical life he found greater satisfaction; though he never really took to the teaching he was forced to do, nor to concert life.
It was the interpretation, an understanding of the essence of a composition, that interested Busoni more than the technique of performing. He craved recognition chiefly as a composer. In 1906 he published his famous
Entwurf einer neuen Äesthetik der Tonkunst ('Sketch of a new musical aesthetic') which sought to provide practical - and in many ways surprisingly visionary - solutions to what he saw as the limitations of Western music: bitonality, quarter tone harmonics, a certain determination to follow musical ideas and phrasing regardless of convention.
Seven Elegies which take up just over half of this CD were written the following year as exempla of his theories; they were published in 1908 and first performed to derision and opposition in 1909 by Busoni himself in Berlin. There are half a dozen or so other recordings of the work, that on Philips (420740), part of Geoffrey Douglas Madge's six hour Busoni piano marathon is perhaps the easiest to recommend. This performance by Sandro Ivo Bartoli is calm, confident, transparent and compelling. There are no surprises and the work progresses gently and steadily.
It's essential that the subtleties of key - which key often changes within a musical phrase - are observed but are neither overplayed nor taken for granted. They must become an integral part of the music. The same goes for the various genres pressed into service during the nearly forty minutes of music:
tarantella, chorale and so on. But, again, Bartoli avoids pastiche. Listen to the energy with which he tackles
Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu dir [tr.3], the third Elegy). It's never forced, rushed, shouted about or pushed. The nuances of shifting, shimmering tonality are brought out by this accomplished pianist. Such use of suggestion by a Debussy or a Scriabin is clear and present. Bartoli's pauses and completely controlled desire to pick up the melody - listen to the delicacy of the tempi in the next Elegy,
Turandots Frauengemach [tr.4], which quotes
Greensleeves too! - bring us fully into the world in which Busoni believed, rather than have us marvel at its eccentricities, as we might with Satie.
In other words, we're enjoying Busoni on his own terms, for his own sake - and not Bartoli's - and at his own pace. We're not being given a gratuitous example of Busoni's 'new theories' but valid music for all its innovation and simple novelty. There is nevertheless an undemonstrative persuasion in the style of the pianist, about whom the rather minimal leaflet from Brilliant says next to nothing. In fact Bartoli was born in 1970 in Pisa, has a relatively wide repertoire. Even so he has fewer currently available recordings than his scope and the prizes he has won might suggest. By the end of the
Seven Elegies, Bartoli's restraint, delicacy and exactness are seen to have been contributing in equal manner to the ethereal, almost elusive beauty which is present, yet can hardly be named. The tonality of the final piece remains with the listener for some time.
The CD begins with the almost as long
Fantasia contrappuntistica, which was written while Busoni was touring in the USA. Inspired by
The Art of Fugue, it underwent several changes in conception and execution but emerged with Busoni's usual enthusiasm in four distinct versions. The second is the one presented here - for solo piano. Again, although he was preoccupied with this music's structure - an 'architectural' drawing of the
Fantasia contrappuntistica is reproduced in the leaflet - Bartoli ensures that we listen to the music as music, not as conception. This is despite the fact that Busoni was at pains to compose something where the strength of his grasp of counterpoint was beyond doubt. Although Bartoli states that "There is … [no] doubt in my mind, at least, that the
Fantasia contrappuntistica is a
masterpiece, a work of mystical allure and visionary genius", not for a second does his playing seek to proselytise - even implicitly. This is not music that gets the exposure its enthusiasts believe it should. Rather Bartoli lets the generosity and breadth of Busoni's vision convince us itself … and it does.
The acoustic on this CD is appropriate, clear, clean and entirely conducive to the inward-looking yet completely open music about which Bartoli, for all his restraint, is so enthusiastic. One is put in mind of Leslie Howard's Liszt. If you're new to Busoni, feel you should get to know his innovations better, or simply want a beautiful hour or so's piano music from a poorly lit corner of the early twentieth century, try this CD.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
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