BUSONI Fantasia Contrappuntistica. REGER Cello Sonata No. 4 • Peter Serkin, Richard Goode (pn); Mischa Schneider (vc) • SONY 92166 (58:58)
The Busoni discography is littered with clueless, dull performances of the Fantasia Contrappuntistica in which fantasy capitulates to contrapuntal rigor, or rigor mortis. Pro forma in these exercises,Read more with the appearance of the fugue the proceedings turn stiffly pedantic, heralding a near half-hour of heavy weather and music depreciation rounded with a noisy slugfest. Even artists one would have thought possessed of a unique affinity for the work—e.g., Ronald Stevenson and Joseph Banowetz (Altarus AIR-CD-9044)—go through it with muted caution. Oddly, Peter Serkin’s remake with András Schiff (ECM 1676/77, Fanfare 23:3) is one of the most disappointingly academic of them all, a tiptoe through the tulips with every transition and recitativo oddment boringly searched and dawdled over as if it held the key to some obscure mystery. Until the appearance of the animated, if poorly recorded, account by Allan Schiller and John Humphreys (Naxos 8.557443, Fanfare 29:6), those who love the work resorted to the black disc performance of Ursula Oppens, with the late Paul Jacobs (Nonesuch 79061, Three Polyphonic Masterpieces, including Beethoven’s four-hand arrangement of the Grosse Fuge and Busoni’s two-piano transcription of Mozart’s Fantasy for a Musical Clock—another eminent candidate for silver!). And—preeminently—the 1964 recording premiere of the two-piano Fantasia Contrappuntistica by Peter Serkin with Richard Goode, in their audacious Young Turk years, which looms after nearly a half-century as the most vivaciously revealing performance of this work on discs of any description. Without a hint of hustle, unflagging élan unriddles this Sphinx. Their brisk pace is close to that adopted by Busoni’s disciple Egon Petri in his still-untopped account of the solo version. Petri, you should know, played opposite the composer in the premiere of this 1921 two-piano arrangement. What in other hands drags as tentative, halting, or overawed by contrapuntal superstition, here acquires melodic point, lift, wings. Fugue means flight; chez Serkin and Goode the Fantasia Contrappuntistica soars to the stratosphere. The customary ponderous dithering of nearly all other recordings evaporates in sotto voce dialogue—despite cataclysmic moments given their head—as Busoni’s punctus contra punctus takes on the character of a seriously pressing but intimately confiding conversation fraught with color and blithesome giddiness. The upshot is what David Johnson—for many years a distinguished Fanfare contributor, by the way—in his excellent annotations (carried over from the Columbia original) called “a work of exhilarating and beautiful power.” Of Busoni’s four versions of the Fantasia Contrapuntistica, this 1921 arrangement is optimum. Keen balance projects the particulars, while the close studio acoustic fades from notice in washes of compelling flair. Until you have heard this, you have not really heard the Fantasia Contrappuntistica.
Mischa Schneider, the Budapest String Quartet’s cellist for 38 years, laces into Reger’s ambivalent, anguishing, restlessly modulating, occasionally haunted last cello sonata—in this more open, clearly detailed 1963 recording—with a sympathetic croon lighting its several facets in glowing lyric cogency as Serkin’s steadiness keeps Reger’s pullulating, chromatically slippery ruminations from devolving into clutter.
In sum, classic readings of two “difficult” early-Modern masterpieces made lucid and ingratiating with compelling flair. Kudos to ArkivMusic for rescuing them!
FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis
Once again Sony/BMG and Arkivmusic.com's on-demand reprint program pool their resources, this time in making these long-out-of-print Busoni and Reger performances available for the first time on CD. Much as I've admired the beautifully thought out and refined Peter Serkin/András Schiff ECM interpretation of Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, these qualities emerge with more energy, rhythmic incision, textural leanness, and forward momentum in the present 1964 recording.
Although the unusually close miking results in an overly dry and dynamically constricted ambience, you still can tell that the pianists are technically confident and fiercely together, yet allow for flexible repartee in fugal passages. They know when to press ahead as well as when to bend and shape Bach's original lines in Busoni's spirit. That this performance stands the test of time so well is all the more amazing when you consider that the pianists hadn't yet turned legal: Peter Serkin was 16, Richard Goode was 20!
The young Serkin's sensitivity and mature musicianship equally manifest themselves throughout an absorbing collaboration with cellist Mischa Schneider in Reger's A minor cello sonata. They unfold the music in considerably broader, more massive terms when compared alongside the brisker, more transparent Gerhardt/Becker recording for Hyperion. For example, Gerhardt/Becker bring out the Allegretto con grazia finale's almost balletic lightness, whereas Schneider/Serkin's deliberation allows the dense chromatic movement more breathing room and tonal inflections. Similarly, in contrast to Gerhardt's classic reserve in the Largo, Schneider's full-bodied tonal elegance benefits from a more expansive tempo, not to mention the intimate, beautifully balanced engineering.
The CD booklet preserves both the original jacket art and David Johnson's excellent annotations included on the vinyl edition's back sleeve. A most welcome and rewarding reissue.
Fantasia contrappuntistica, K 256by Ferruccio Busoni Performer:
Peter Serkin (Piano),
Richard Goode (Piano)
Period: 20th Century Written: 1910/1922; Berlin, Germany Date of Recording: 2/7/1964 Venue: Columbia 30th Street Studio, NYC
Real FindNovember 4, 2013By E. Barnes (Herndon, VA)See All My Reviews"Busonis Fantasia Contrappuntistica will give your brain a workout. Its not overly modern or anything, its just extremely rigorous in its fugue-ing. Like Bach (and you know you can handle HIM). Peter Serkin and Richard Goode, both of whom would go on to have full successful careers, are so good at this music its hard to believe. After that exhausting run, its nice to have a rather more obviously gorgeous piece like the Reger to top off the CD. Schneider is a master of this music and Serkin shows a maturity way beyond his years. The only mystery is why Columbia chose to release this LP when they must have known it wouldnt be a best seller. Whatever, Im glad they did."Report Abuse