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Hyperion Records

CDA67143 - Busoni: Piano Concerto
CDA67143

Recording details: June 1999
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1999
Total duration: 71 minutes 44 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE
CLASSIC CD 100 GREATEST DISCS OF THE DECADE

'Another awe-inspiring feat from this prodigiously virtuosic Canadian … like no other performance that I've heard it proves what a richly enjoyable piece it is … a dazzling disc. If any pianist can clarify and define this bewildering work it is Hamelin, with his razor-sharp reflexes, a technique that knows no difficulties and, even more important, a ready sympathy for Busoni's abrupt changes of pace and direction … a spine-tingling experience.' (Gramophone)

'Busoni makes ridiculous demands on pianists, but in Marc-André Hamelin's hands, it all sounds perfectly reasonable. It isn't: it's noble, hilarious, impressive and gloriously over the top.' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The biggest blockbuster of them all. Mark Elder and the CBSO support Hamelin to the hilt and the result does full justice to one of the mightiest epics of the piano repertoire' (The Times)

'Dark, turbulent, horribly difficult to play, very long—and probably my disc of the year … This fine new recording does full justice to every aspect of the work. [It] will surely help to establish Busoni as an unarguably major composer' (Classic CD)

'As piano concertos go, they certainly don't get bigger than this; and as recordings go, they don't come any better' (The Scotsman)

'Let there be no doubt—Hamelin, with the CBSO and Elder, gives a performance of brilliance and passion to rank with any from the past … thrilling.' (Sunday Herald, Scotland)

'Hamelin's account is quite extraordinary, especially in the cadenza, in which the virtuosity he unleashes reaches barely credible heights … one of his finest achievements to date.' (International Piano)

'Sensational … anyone who has the slightest doubts about Busoni's stature as a composer will surely be won over by this magisterial recording' (Piano, Germany)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concerto

This has to be our Romantic Piano Concerto for the millennium!

The Busoni concerto, with its five movements, choral finale and a length of over 70 minutes, is surely the most grandiose ever written. But this is no over-ambitious monster; Busoni was one of the greatest pianists the world has known, but he was also a great intellectual with very strong views on art and culture. This work is the masterpiece of his middle years, more of a symphony in the breadth and scope of its ideas, but at the same time almost casually requiring the most formidable technical ability from the soloist. There is no doubt that this is one of music's major neglected masterpieces.

Marc-André Hamelin needs no introduction as a champion of the greatest challenges in the piano literature. Here he is joined by Mark Elder who has a particular reputation as a Busoni conductor. He conducted this work with Peter Donohoe in their famed Proms performance of 1988 and he has also conducted Busoni's rarely performed magnum opus 'Doctor Faust' at ENO.


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Busoni’s Piano Concerto (1902–1904) is the consummation of his first period and a monument to his phenomenal pianism. His title-page design symbolizes the work. There are five movements. I, III and V are represented respectively by Graeco-Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian architecture; II and IV by fantasy in nature.

I. Prologo e Intrioto
The Prologo contains one main broad idea in C major presented simply on strings, followed by a cadence-group in two sections: a descending melody and an arresting horn-call. These ideas are expanded in tutti, when a chordal string figure surges under the horn-call and presages the Introito and the soloist’s entry, which continues the surging chords. The orchestra interposes subdued dramatic tremoli and the soloist’s melody is emblazoned on woodwind and then on trumpet. The orchestra’s comments become more explicit in scalic ejaculations, contrasting the tonalities of D flat and D. The piano welds these into a continuous passage which provides the bass to woodwind reminiscences of the opening. After a cadenza, the second subject emerges (E major saraband rhythm) on lyric woodwinds, with piano and strings etching in the background. The second subject in turn accompanies a tender Italianate melody on the oboe, later joined by clarinet and flute. Episodic development leads to the central cataractous cadenza in D flat, which gradually subsides into a rippling accompaniment over which solo oboe, then flute recall the first subject in the E major key and lyric mood of the second subject. A chain of trills leads to the recapitulation in variation form, with the piano in treble figures over the theme in pizzicato. A sudden drop to B major, pp. The accumulative passionate intensifications consciously parody Wagner. Anxiety abates and the orchestra again recalls the opening. The strings come to rest on a softly held dramatic chord, above which the piano begins its final cadenza in a veiled mist of sound. The orchestra modulates to a dominant pedal in C and the piano has a free passage in triple trills. The cadence-theme rings out heroically on the trumpet above tremolando strings and piano scales. Then a serene coda on a tonic pedal recalls the opening and stretches out like a vista, a vision of the Roman Campagna.

II. Pezzo giocoso
The piano leaps in with light fantastic runs, over a drumroll, will-o’-the-wisp trills on strings and Berliozian woodwind cackles. In its highest register, the piano glistens like shattering stained glass above a mock-heroic fanfare, and the point is reached in a spirited 6/8 orchestral danza in A major. A most diabolical dance follows in the piano’s lowest register, punctuated by the cloven-hoofed thud of bass drum and cymbal. Syrinx-like gales of hollow woodwind laughter greet the rounds of the dance and spur it on to a whirling vortex. A dynamic tutti is unleashed, quasi con brutalità. The piano enters the fray with a bold cadenza which accompanies a new round of the dance. The storm ultimately cedes to a barcarolle of arpeggi low on the piano. A shuddering pizzicato dance accompaniment introduces the Neapolitan sailors’ song Fenesta ca lucive (‘The light from yon window’) played with the deep melancholy of chalumeau clarinet and divisi cellos. It is the résumé of the song—the best of it—remembered long afterwards, with the phrases coming slow and long pauses in between, filled in by the piano’s lapping arpeggios. Then the piano sings a Caruso-like serenade and plucked strings pulse like a big guitar. Memory is distilled, time is momentarily arrested and the solo continues alone in a somnambulent cadenza. The orchestra enters with a grisly memory of the diabolic dance and draws the solo along with it, until the piano assumes veritably orchestral sonority. A sudden diminuendo, and a low tremolo on the piano rumbles like distant thunder. Above this, the solo makes valedictory reference to the Neapolitan song in sombre low octaves, answered by opaque woodwind echoes. Gloom submerges everything in the diabolic darkness of the dance of death. Oriental scales on the piano vanish like vapour. A sad defeated fanfare on a ruined glory of D major, and a string chord hangs like a breath on the air.

III. Pezzo serioso
This master-building in music contains an introduction and three parts conceived on the grandest scale and executed in the grandest manner. The lower strings initiate a baroque bass in D flat, and clarinet, bassoon and viola intone a stark recitative. A full close leads to agitated woodwind tremolandos under the dramatic dirge of unison oboe and cor anglais. The lament becomes more clamorous as clarinets are added and strings take over the tremolando from the woodwind. Basses darkly echo the lamentation. After a brief quasi-improvised solo, the brass and low woodwind suggest an E major chorale, the piano commenting with descending scales of chords at every pause, scales echoed by the lower strings, when the piano accompanies in dominant preparation which leads to Part I and the full solo statement of the chorale. An orchestral chorale-prelude variation ensues. The piano then alludes lyrically to the Chopin Nocturne, Op 62, whereupon the chorale returns on the winds over tremolando strings. A sudden brilliant solo arpeggio pyramid terminates the first part.

Part II opens in C major with pulsating strings and low winds accompanying a bold sculptured theme in single notes in the piano’s middle register. The orchestra assumes the melody. Over hieroglyphic pyramids of pianistic figuration, the orchestra develops the previous ideas. The initial baroque bass is now electrified into tempestuous piano chords that seethe under an impassioned iteration of the dirge, now treated in stretto. The piano traces spectral shadows of the dirge, with orchestral reminiscences interposed. A curtailed restatement of the introduction follows, and there are two more chorale-variations (always in D flat), increasingly intricate but constantly tranquil. Cellos evoke the Chopinesque nocturne-theme, set against a lace-work of piano figuration. A long dominant pedal finally yields to a last intensified statement of the dirge.

Part III begins with a throbbing horn dominant-pedal in F sharp minor below plangent Italian cries on the woodwinds. The music modulates back to D flat and reposes in an orchestral idyll.

IV. All’ Italiana
Muted violins shimmer and colloquies of woodwinds cascade: fountains in sunlight. The piano establishes a low rumbling accompaniment against which the woodwinds suggest scraps of the previously heard Neapolitan song, transmogrified into a canzone a ballo in F minor. A solo cadenza leads the music on through various keys, like dancing through streets festooned for a festival. The strings take mutes off when the sun comes out in C major. Piano solo is pitted against orchestra in mock combat. A slightly graver section suggests a passing reminiscence of the slow movement. A new danza in B flat minor, in modo popolare, adds a note of insistence, and the piano heightens its brilliance by transposing it up a semitone and treating it in Italianate 3rds and 6ths that reek of garlic and tar. An unusual comic effect results from treating a popular Italian march as a Rossinian acceleration without the expected crescendo. This ‘cuckoo’ song will not be missed in its pointed bassoon and pizzicato orchestration. The march-song (in dialect with optional facetiae) is known to all Roman bersaglieri, those colourful counterparts of the dashing Highland soldiers. Its burden is: E si e si e si / Che la porteremo. Perhaps Scots best conveys its braggadocio panache: Och aye och aye och aye / Wi’ yon fedder i’ your bonnet / Quick merch to the bloody colonel / Tae Hell wi’ Houghmagandie [fornication] / An’ pledge ye’re sodgers leal. The march is prostituted into a tarantella. Audacity accumulates until the piano hammers out a chord, as though to silence the charivari. But it summonses it to fresh assault instead. La stretta commences innocuously with a silly music-hall vamp, continues with two clarinets in licentious harmony, and goes on gathering orchestration, speed, and, this time, volume also. The idea of out-Rossini-ing Rossini by presenting the accelerando twice—once without crescendo and once with it—is a throw of theatric genius and builds the music up to an unbelievable breaking-point of excitement. Then, as if that were not enough, we have yet another stretto, superimposing march on tarantella. The soloist eclipses everything in a brilliant cadenza which reaches a frenetic climax, after which it only remains for the orchestra to re-assert the tonic chord of C in a battery of sound. When all seems over, one learns that the silence is deceptive. Three soft pizzicato chords unexpectedly turn the music into the minor key and make it disappear like fantastic shadows of the last merrymakers vanishing into unimaginably mysterious alleyways.

V. Cantico
This opens gravely in E minor with piano and string arpeggios and sustained trumpets. Bassoons and horns recall the sculptured theme of the slow movement’s middle section, and trumpets and trombones answer while the glockenspiel casts its magical aura over all. The oboe remembers a melody from the first movement: everything seems to return now in memory’s kaleidoscope. The idyllic end of the middle movement is resumed in E major on low muted strings, and the invisible male chorus adds another registration to the music and sings a mystic hymn in German words by the Danish poet, Adam Oehlenschläger: Hebt zu der ewigen Kraft Eure Herzen (Lift up your hearts to the Eternal Almighty / Draw ye to Allah). It is also an ode to the great enduring achievements of ancient civilizations. The music of the chorus is taken from the grandiose piano entry in the first movement. The C major middle section of the slow movement is again recalled, the bold sculptured theme this time being sung. The surging chordal figure of the Prologo returns like the tide. Below it we hear a whole-tone variation of the Neapolitan sailors’ song. Then the unexpected: profundity is brushed aside by a brilliant bravura peroration. Professor Dent was in error when he dismissed this ending as ‘merely conventional’. It is a gesture of despair but not of exhausted invention. Its message is vanitas vanitatum. It is like the Babylonian woman in the Book of Revelation: upon its forehead is MYSTERY and in its heart is despair. MULTAE TERRICOLIS LINGUAE, COELESTIBUS UNA.

Postscript
Busoni’s Piano Concerto is the summation of his youth, his first period. My long programme note was written (for John Ogdon) in my early manhood. Maturity should read it in perspective, rather than critically in hindsight. Effusion is germane to both the music and my writing on it.

This mammoth concerto, though composed in Busoni’s late 30s, was indeed begun at 16! He composed an Etude in D flat in 1883. This retained his interest, for he played it to his American student Augusta Cottlow and rewarded her enthusiasm by dedicating it to her.

In early manhood he contemplated writing music for the Danish poet Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin. This ultimately became the male chorus of the Busoni Concerto.

Re-considering his composer’s career in perspective, Busoni judged that his first period, which culminated with his Piano Concerto, was characterised by a mastery of prodigality. From there he progressed to mastery of refinement, his later works being more condensed.

The same process is observed and heard in Busoni’s first opera, Die Brautwahl (‘The Bridal Choice’) of 1911: a huge comic opera. His later operas—Arlecchino, Turandot and Doktor Faust—refine on his first opera, just as his Indianische Fantasie Op 44 refines on his Piano Concerto.

His Piano Concerto was not conceived as an extrovert work but rather as a symphonic oeuvre with a large scale piano obbligato. He later thought of it as his ‘Italian Symphony’.

The sobriety—modesty even—of Busoni’s approach has remarkable restraint in a great virtuoso. This is already indicated in his tempo mark for the first movement. He does not write ‘Allegro brillante’, which a listener might expect, but he writes ‘Allegro, dolce e solenne’ (a sweet and solemn allegro). His restraint indicates his new classicality, close to anti-Romanticism. He pays his listener the compliment of assuming that he is discerning.

Ronald Stevenson ©


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