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Hyperion Records

CDA67324 - Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 2 – Ferruccio Busoni
Front illustration by Donya Claire James (b?)

Recording details: August 2001
Forde Abbey, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Erik Smith
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: February 2002
Total duration: 69 minutes 55 seconds


'Nikolai Demidenko performs all the music here with admirable devotion … The playing throughout this enterprising recital cannot be faulted' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Demidenko plays them all with great panache and limitless technical command, clearly relishing the vast array of colour that Busoni's fertile imagination encourages' (The Guardian)

'[Demidenko's] performances capture the smouldering long lines and Gothic grandeur inherent in Busoni's textural transformations of the originals' (International Record Review)

'Enthusiastically recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'From the opening notes of the Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue with which the CD begins there is a lightness, vivacity and ease to Demidenko’s playing which engages the attention' (Pianist)

'Demidenko’s full-blooded readings of the D major Prelude and Fugue BWV 532 and the monumental D minor Chaconne from BWV 1004 have the necessary tingle factor, backed by sensational recorded sound' (Music Week)

'Demidenko rend un somoptueux hommage à l’art de Busoni, dont ces compositions constituent elles-mêmes un vibrant hommage au génie de Bach' (Répertoire, France)

'Il [Nikolai Demidenko] possède une véritable affinité et une intelligence de cette musique, qui apparaît très claire, sinon toujours à son maximum d’éxpressivité. Voici une approche convaincante de ces transcriptions' (Classica, France)

'This is some of the most colossal piano playing I've ever heard. In its nobility, its grandeur, its multi-dimensionality and its astounding command of piano sonorities, it's worth the price of admission by itself' (Piano, Germany)

Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 2 – Ferruccio Busoni
Prelude  [2'59]
Fugue  [3'10]
Prelude  [6'52]
Fugue  [5'47]

Following the success of Nikolai Demidenko's first disc of Busoni's transcriptions of Bach (CDA66566), here he completes the project. Busoni developed an individual approach to re-casting Bach's organ works for the piano, and utilizes a full range of sonorities to recreate the sound and effects of the organ. These transcriptions were so popular during Busoni's lifetime that his wife was once introduced by a society patron as Mrs Bach-Busoni!

This disc includes several lesser-known chorale preludes, the imposing Chaconne (originally for solo violin, although Busoni views it very much as another organ transcription), the D major Prelude and Fugue BWV532, and two rarities—the E minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV533) that Busoni used to illustrate his transcription techniques in the appendix to his edition of Bach's Das wohltemperirte Clavier, and the Fantasie, Adagio and Fugue, which is a hybrid work conjoining two Bach keyboard works (two thirds of the fugue is entirely by Busoni, as Bach left it unfinished).

Nikolai Demidenko conjures a magnificent sound from his Fazioli piano, and draws on his unique palette of instrumental colour. Anyone who has heard his first Bach-Busoni disc will want this follow-up. This disc is also part of a new Hyperion series exploring the wealth and diversity of piano transcriptions of Bach.

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'The art of transcription has made it possible for the piano to take possession of the entire literature of music.’ Written in a letter to his wife, dated 22 July 1913, Busoni here reveals in a few words the heart of his reasoning in devoting so much of his creative energy to an art that he considered had increasingly become debased by the tasteless distortions of mediocre imaginations. His remarks could, of course, equally lead to the inference that he was advocating transcription as a vehicle to achieve the ultimate goal of pianistic hegemony. He was, however, characteristically clear in his objectives, as well as in the rebuttal of what he viewed as the irrational antagonism which his preoccupation with the medium of transcription as a mode of expression was apt to arouse.

‘Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form. The intention itself of writing down the idea compels a decision on measure and key. The form as well as the musical agency, which the composer must also decide upon, further define the means and the limits. It is much the same with man himself. Born naked and without clearly defined aspirations, he decides, or at a given moment is made to decide, upon a career. From the moment of decision, while a good deal that is original and indestructible in the idea or the man may live on, each is reduced to the conformity of classification. The musical idea becomes a sonata or a concerto; the man, a soldier or a priest.’ Enlarging on this thesis in his Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music, Busoni posits that the transition from this ‘original’ transcription to a second is a comparatively short and insignificant step, and yet it is only the second, in general, of which any notice is taken, thus overlooking the fact that the archetype, far from being destroyed or lost in the process, remains intact, imperishable. Moreover, the act of musical performance represents, in effect, another form of transcription, irrespective of the perceived liberties that may be taken in the process, since the musical work is an indivisible entity that exists independently of its own resonances, both within and outside time, so that by its very nature we are afforded the means of perceiving an otherwise intangible concept, that of the Ideality of Time.

By way of example, Busoni cites the many instances in Beethoven’s piano music that sound like transcriptions of orchestral works and, conversely, the impression created in a lot of Schumann’s orchestral music of arrangements of piano compositions. Furthermore, he argues that variation form itself, when built on a borrowed theme, amounts to a series of ‘arrangements’ that are as a rule at their most resourceful when their treatment of an ‘inviolable’ original idea is the least respectful. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in seeking to define the function of notation, which he describes as ‘primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration’, and the responsibility of the interpreter, which is to ‘resolve the rigidity of the signs’, Busoni should have chosen the work of another visionary, E T A Hoffmann, to support his argument. Hoffmann’s transcendental imagination, he suggests, with its proclivity for spectral imagery, mysticism and the occult, could easily have found its fullest expression through the medium of music. Yet comparing his musical creations with even the weakest of his literary endeavours reveals the extent to which the tyranny of notation can stifle the inspiration of the moment, fettering the imagination through the imposition of form and, consequently, conventionality.

Although such a radical re-evaluation of the established musical canon adumbrated in Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music placed Busoni at the forefront of the musical avant garde when it first appeared in 1907 (its second edition, published in 1916 at a more politically sensitive time, elicited an even stronger response from the fundamentally conservative Berlin musical establishment) Busoni was no mere iconoclast. Indeed, his more prophetic utterances, in particular those that reflect his futuristic vision of a ‘Universal Music’ liberated from the constraints of aesthetic and temporal prejudice, have their origins in the traditions of the past, a past to which, through his immense scholarship and deep understanding, he remained unfailingly loyal. Equally, he was aware of the dangers of ossification that can result from unquestioning lip-service to the precepts of earlier generations, identifying tradition per se as a ‘plaster mask taken from life, which, over the course of time, and having passed through the hands of innumerable craftsmen, leaves its resemblance to the original largely a matter of imagination’.

Nowhere, however, is Busoni’s acknowledgement of the debt owed to his forebears, spiritual and intrinsic, better illustrated than in his epilogue to the 1923 Breitkopf edition of the complete keyboard works of Bach: ‘I have to thank my father for the good fortune that he insisted on the most thorough study of Bach in my childhood, and that in a time and in a country in which the master was rated little higher than Carl Czerny. My father was a simple clarinet virtuoso, who liked to play fantasias on Il Trovatore and The Carnival of Venice; he was a man of limited musical education, an Italian and a cultivator of the bel canto. How did such a man in his ambition for his son’s career manage to hit on the very thing that was right? I can only liken it to some mysterious, visionary enlightenment. He educated me in his way to be a “German” musician and showed me the way which I never entirely deserted, though at the same time I never cast off the Latin qualities given to me by Nature.’ In addition, the example of his composition teacher in Graz, Wilhelm Mayer-Rémy, further consolidated what was to become a lifelong devotion to the music of Bach, which he considered, next to that of Beethoven, bore the closest affinity to the ideal of an infinite, ur-music, a belief that is mirrored in his conviction that the future of music lay in the redemption of a ‘cultivated final polyphony’.

The notion that instrumental music be restricted to a single medium was, of course, an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century development in performance practice. Before that time practical realisation of the abstract concept of ‘sound art’ was more often left to the discretion and capabilities of the performer(s) and/or the resources available. One has only to examine, say, Andrea Gabrieli’s Ricercari … composti e tabulati per ogni sorte di stromenti da tasti or Claudio Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals, unusually entitled ‘Concerto’, most probably in deference to a similarly-named collection by A Gabrieli, to gain some impression of the degree of latitude and flexibility composers and, by implication, performers brought to matters of instrumental timbre. In addition, the notational conventions of the time allowed for a wealth of harmonic and contrapuntal detail to be interpolated by the performer, admittedly according to an accepted code of practice, yet still allowing for the implementation of a whole panoply of combinatorial possibilities.

In the area of ornamental embellishment, especially in the vocal field, and in particular the type of melismatic fioritura that was intended to cast the spotlight on a singer’s own hard-won virtuosity, any disapproval on the part of the composer was more likely to be a consequence of some technical shortcoming or lapse of taste than any inherent objection to the sacrosanctity of his original conception being violated in such a way. Only later, then, did the attributes of specific instrumentation as part and parcel of any viable realisation of musical ideas acquire the significance they were to assume. Indeed, J S Bach was himself an unashamed transcriber, leaving inter alia a whole series of keyboard adaptations of instrumental concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello and Telemann, as well as Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar! Clementi, too, was not averse to making arrangements of his own compositions, as, for example, with his Sonata in C, Op 33 No 3, which is a reworking of material that also appears in the manuscript of a concerto of his from the same period. Other examples of Clementi’s second thoughts being a considerable improvement on earlier ideas include his adaptation for flute and piano of two sets of waltzes originally scored for piano, tambourine and triangle! Clementi’s publishing house, which had bought the rights to the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the British Dominions, also commissioned the composer to make a piano transcription of the piece, although admittedly Beethoven undertook the assignment more for reasons of expediency than creativity.

The reawakening of interest in the music of Bach that followed in the wake of the performance of the St Matthew Passion that Mendelssohn directed at the Berlin Singakademie in 1829 also played an important part in the revival of the serious study of polyphonic organ-playing and of the independent discipline required for mastery of the pedal-board. Paganini’s awe-inspiring feats of virtuosity were also to have far-reaching effects, not least in prompting a redefinition of the possibilities of piano technique, building exponentially on the advances made by Clementi and others, and in turn extending the range of the instrument’s expressive potential. At the forefront of this development was, of course, Liszt, whose adaptations of a number of Paganini’s Caprices introduced a transcendental, almost visionary concept of keyboard writing that could be applied not only to new original compositions but also in a whole range of paraphrases and transcriptions of other composers’ works, not simply arranging but making explicit what previously could only have been implied within the limitations of the instrumental texture. Intriguingly, Busoni himself was later to return to the same source in his sequence of piano pieces An die Jugend in the form of a composition based on the Eleventh and Fifteenth of Paganini’s Caprices. Arguably, An die Jugend, which also includes reworkings of pieces by Bach and Mozart and to which Busoni enigmatically alludes in a diary entry as a form of palimpsest, amounts to a distillation of the composer’s vision of the direction and aspect which music would take in the future, achieved through a re-examination of the traditions of the past, the dedication being not only a reflection of his affection for the idealism of youth and its capacity to ‘turn the earth over and sow new seed in it’, but an exhortation to the aspirations of future generations.

In turning his attention to Bach’s organ works, Liszt in effect created a new genre, one that would be further explored by his students, Tausig, Bülow, d’Albert and Stradal. He also found in Bach’s geometric polyphony and opulent Baroque ornamentation a counterweight to the unbridled Byronic Romanticism of his earlier style. Moreover, his distinctly eclectic genius for transformation and for unifying diverse and disparate elements to form a cohesive new entity is exemplified by his assimilation and metamorphosis of certain external features of Bach’s style in original compositions, such as the Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and the Fantasy and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H. It is worth noting that the latter first appeared as an organ work and that the piano version is a further instance of a composer recycling his materials in such an intuitive and imaginative way as to dismiss any doubts as to the relative viability of either solution to the creative dilemma. As an illustration of the ability of material to withstand a variety of treatment without its identity being wholly subsumed in the process, Busoni was later to make a piano transcription of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam for organ, itself based on a Bach-type theme of traditional Jewish origin sung by a group of Anabaptists in Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète!

Liszt’s pioneering efforts in the field, while dealing imaginatively with the problems of balance created by the often disproportionate textural weight produced by the pedal-board by means of judicious doublings, were in the main quite literal. In fact, the relatively minor alterations to the text largely comprise octave transpositions necessitated by practical considerations and the supplementation of certain chord structures for rhetorical effect. Busoni, no doubt thinking of some of the more reckless extravagances of Liszt’s followers in the field, restored—by means of sophisticated and subtly innovative registration—a characteristically more rigorous polyphonic style as well as a greater refinement of scoring. In what amounts to a short treatise on the art of transcribing Bach’s organ works for the piano, which appears as an appendix to his edition of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Busoni expounds with the aid of copious examples and even suggested exercises his theories on the subject. A second appendix, illustrating these principles in practice, comprises his transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV533, while a third is devoted to an analysis of the fugue from Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. Although less imposing in physical dimensions than his other transcriptions of Bach’s larger scale organ works, Busoni’s rescoring of the E minor Prelude and Fugue provides an invaluable working insight into the challenges presented by the undertaking—the original organ part is printed for comparison above Busoni’s transcription—as well as a number of alternative and equally workable solutions: for example, the single line of the organ opening is treated to a wide variety of ‘blind’ octave transformations to recreate in the most imaginative way the effect produced by the hand alternations prescribed in the organ writing. With separate sections of his brief manual addressing not only the technical problems involved but also the artistic considerations of issues such as voice doubling in different parts, registration, the degree of freedom with which textures may be subtly altered for clarity of effect by the addition or omission of material, and, most importantly, the use and application in performance of the pedal, Busoni outlines an aesthetic dialectic in which transcription becomes a recreative synthesis of compositional inventiveness, refined instrumental virtuosity and intellectual rigour. As with Liszt and his students, Busoni’s ideas in this field inspired disciples such as Petri, Blanchet, Szanto and Zadora, and are reflected to some extent in Respighi’s transcriptions from Frescobaldi.

It is, perhaps, apt that the impetus for the Busoni transcriptions should have been provided by an organ recital he attended in 1888, together with the Petri family, at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach had himself been Kantor and where Busoni had been living since 1886. Kathi Petri, the mother of Egon, had suggested to Busoni the idea of transcribing the Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV532, which had been on the programme. One week later, despite having not previously attempted anything of the kind, he played his transcription to his friends and on 13 May 1888, he exhibited it to a wider public at a concert hosted by the Bach Association of Leipzig. With this Busoni not only initiated a series that was to restore much of the dignity of the original conception that had been compromised by the stentorian excesses of the previous generation, but also prompted the deeper exploration of a style of touch and technique that were entirely sui generis. Busoni recognised that the piano was ideally suited to the elucidation of the internal structure of the music, in marked contrast to those whose primary concern had been with the external amplitude of the writing. His extensive study of Baroque performance practice, in particular the theories of C P E Bach, led him to explore a style of playing that was fundamentally non legato in essence, although capable at each end of the spectrum of a perfect legato and a quasi pizzicato staccato. This development enabled Busoni to suggest the different types of registration available on the organ by providing the necessary textural clarity to recreate the control required of an organist in a reverberant church acoustic. An example of this approach occurs at the statement of the fugue subject of the E minor Prelude and Fugue, which he instructs must be played mit der starren dynamischen Gleichmässigkeit einer Orgelstimme. At the same time he could illuminate the wide arches of the music and harness its cumulative energy, leaving the listener with a clear impression not only of the spirit of the original but also with Busoni’s own response to it and the possibilities such a response might open up in the future. The purely physical challenges suggested by the demands of his Clavierübung and the exercises he devised for his edition of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, again based on the original materials, find their match in the creative invention of the new perspective he brought to the otherwise familiar. Indeed, referring to his edition of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, he was to note in his diary: ‘Part I for pianists; Part II for composers: my testament’.

Standing between Das wohltemperirte Clavier and his transcriptions of the organ fugues, the ten Chorale Preludes (the seventh, Durch Adam’s Fall ist ganz verderbt, is in two separate parts, although the first can serve as a prelude to the fugal version that follows) reflect the improvisatory nature of their origins as reciprocated in Busoni’s aesthetic, which gave free rein to the intellect and the spirit, through the agency of a technique of illimitable resource wholly at the service of the imagination. In Bach’s time, and indeed for at least a century before, church organists, especially in the Lutheran tradition, would be expected to demonstrate their prowess by improvising, or at least by composing, a polyphonic piece based on the hymn tune to be sung during the service. Busoni alluded to the motivation behind his adaptations of a selection of the Chorale Preludes, examples of a genre based entirely on the interpretation of an existing form, in the preface to the 1898 edition: ‘[It was] not so much to furnish a sample of his [the editor’s] capabilities as arranger as the desire to interest a larger section of the public in these compositions which are so rich in art, feeling and fantasy … This style of arrangement … we take leave to describe as “in chamber-music style” as in contradistinction to “concert-arrangements”.’ Compared to the originals, Busoni’s treatment of the chorale preludes is alternately straightforward and elaborate, involving some additional counterpoint and varied repeats. Equally, just as the function of the original was to reflect on the mood of the texts, the more open registration implicit in the organ writing provided Busoni with a wealth of means to exploit the inherent resonances of the piano in a characteristically exploratory manner.

Unlike his transcriptions of the organ works, which use the resources of the piano to comment, as it were, on the sonority of the original medium and to clarify certain details of texture, Busoni’s version of the Chaconne takes as its point de départ a diametrically opposed premise, one in which a conscious decision has been made to set aside considerations of violinistic timbre. Indeed, in its sonorous and virtuosic, purely pianistic, writing, as well as its unmistakably Baroque nobility of expressive gesture, Busoni’s transcription emerges more as an adaptation of an original organ work than one for violin. Busoni did, in fact, take the view that the grandeur of Bach’s conception was ill-suited to the violin and that its realisation in the transcribed form, which he had arrived at via, in effect, an internalised ‘organ’ version, more vividly conveyed the universality of the composer’s vision. The critic H T Parker, speaking in his book Eighth Notes in 1922, described the richness and depth Busoni brought to his performances of Bach in terms of the music advancing ‘in majestic clangors; each phrase having its just emphasis; the whole moving with might and majesty. It was truly one of the rare and impossible grandeurs of the piano.’ The Chaconne had already, of course, been variously supplied with a piano accompaniment by both Mendelssohn and Schumann, orchestrated by Raff and transcribed for piano left hand alone by Brahms, but in contrast to these arrangements Busoni’s re-examination amounts to a radical exegesis of the substance of the music from the complementary perspectives of both performer and composer.

Further light is thrown on to these perspectives by the Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue, a composite work in which Busoni expands the familiar C minor Fantasy, BWV906, with its incomplete fugue, inserting the Adagio from the G major Violin Sonata BWV968 (which itself exists in a keyboard transcription thought to be by Bach’s grandson Wilhelm Friedrich). The fugue, which follows the Adagio without a pause, is taken from an unfinished manuscript which breaks off after 47 bars and which Busoni completes, further illustrating the potential for continuous growth within entities that may only exist in partial form. Intriguingly, unlike many of his other ‘concert’ versions, Busoni’s enlargement of the Fantasy, apart from the visual clarification of the part-writing brought about by the organ-style notation on three staves, is confined in the main to the provision of a more imposing ending—in fact, at one point the texture is actually simplified. ‘Let us consider how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from architectonic, acoustic and aesthetic dogmas; let it be pure invention and sentiment, in harmonics, in forms, in tone-colours … Let every beginning be as if none had been before! Know nothing, but rather think and feel!’

Charles Hopkins © 2002

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