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Hyperion Records

CDA67677 - Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica & other piano music
Architectural Water Folly. English School (18th century)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2007
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2008
Total duration: 70 minutes 47 seconds


'This daunting and inspired coupling is played by Hamish Milne with an uplifting musical authority. Indeed, aided by Hyperion's superb sound, Milne even surpasses his earlier L'Oiseau Lyre recording of the Liszt/Busoni Fantasy … Milne's performance is of an unfaltering beauty and lucidity' (Gramophone)

'Milne, who through his studies with Guido Agosti is a 'grand-pupil' of Busoni himself, tackles this repertoire with a full appreciation of the Classicism that lies behing its Romantic surface, and is especially effective at clarifying the fugal layers in the Fantasia and the Liszt' (The Daily Telegraph)

'It takes a conductor's vision for the 'whole' to stand back from the work, and I invite those unfamiliar with its more inscrutable corners to immerse themselves in Milne's sincere and entirely intelligible account … Milne handles the work [Liszt] with courage and sensitivity, drawing much of substance from the long-breathed melodies while allowing the work's cathedral-like charisma to rise up, too … the customary glow and clarity to the Hyperion sound, allied with performances of weight and integrity, makes this an indispensable disc for Busoni lovers' (International Record Review)

'Arrangements of Liszt and a slow movement from a Mozart Piano Concerto are joined by his mammoth Fantasia Contrappentistica, the 32 minutes of which are dispatched with immense panache by Hamish Milne' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'Hamish Milne, of course, is no stranger to mammoth-sized pianism. He channels his big, colorful sonority toward line rather than mass, and balances the music's thick textures as if they were varied organ registrations … Milne emphasizes clarity through and through. He takes special care to articulate short, detached phrasings differently from longer legato lines and manages to evoke a wide tonal spectrum with little help from the sustain pedal' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

Fantasia contrappuntistica & other piano music
Fantasy  [9'34]
Adagio  [10'45]
Fugue  [9'00]
Andantino  [9'35]
Fugue I  [3'55]
Fugue II  [2'12]
Fugue III  [6'13]
Intermezzo  [1'10]
Variation I  [1'25]
Variation II  [0'52]
Variation III  [0'58]
Cadenza  [1'29]
Fugue IV  [1'44]
Chorale  [1'01]
Stretta  [2'10]

Busoni was not only one of the greatest pianists of his age but also a composer and theorist of daunting intellect. His three idols were Bach, Mozart and Liszt and this disc presents two transcriptions, and—in the Fantasia contrappuntistica—a colossal re-imagining, each paying tribute to the past while reflecting Busoni’s genius as both creator and re-creator.

The Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ is undoubtedly one of Liszt’s very greatest works yet as an organ piece it could be regarded as rather inaccessible to the general concert goer. Busoni’s magnificent piano transcription allows the work access to the concert hall; it remains a mystery why the piece has not been taken up by more pianists—perhaps its time will come.

In comparison the Mozart transcription is a much more modest, though perfectly realized, piece which gives much needed repose before the onslaught of Busoni’s pianistic magnum opus, the Fantasia contrappuntistica. This work has at its heart a realization of the incomplete final fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue but seen in terms of twentieth-century harmony. The fugal sections are preceded by a chorale arrangement and interspersed with an intermezzo and variations; Busoni then creates an entirely new fugue on four subjects which Bach is thought to have planned, though he did not live to carry it out. In this work Busoni hoped to create ‘one of the most significant works of modern piano literature’. If its daunting complexity both for pianist and listener never make it a standard of the repertoire, it is certainly one of the most imposing of piano works and in this performance Hamish Milne has certainly created a landmark in his already impressive recording career.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ferruccio Busoni has acquired a rather intimidating aura as a composer. Although revered as a pianist, it has been said more than once that his music excites more admiration than affection. His literary essays frequently venture more deeply into the metaphysical than most critics, and his music, too, became increasingly concerned with a world that was at once mystical and scientific, one which sought to rationalize the inexplicable. Small wonder, then, that musicians as well as music lovers confess themselves baffled by some of his experiments.

And yet, for all his intellectual prowess and curiosity, his three idols, represented here, were Bach, Mozart and Liszt, who all had the gift of the most direct and immediate clarity of utterance. Alongside his painstaking growth as a composer, from his prolific and precocious juvenilia to the awesome grandeur of his final masterpiece, the opera Doktor Faust, Busoni’s love of transcription was a recurring outlet for his pianistic and interpretative imagination. His magisterial pianistic reworking of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin became so well established in the concert repertoire that his wife, Gerda, once found herself introduced at a reception as ‘Mrs Bach-Busoni’.

Busoni’s preoccupation with Liszt was initially connected as much with his own piano playing as with Liszt’s boundless creativity. One opened the door to the other and his splendidly flamboyant transcription of Liszt’s monumental organ magnum opus comes from the end of this initial period of infatuation. ‘It was at that time of my life when I had become conscious of such deficiencies and faults in my own playing that with energetic determination I began the study of the pianoforte again from the beginning on quite a new basis. Liszt’s works were my guide and through them I acquired an intimate knowledge of his particular method. Out of his “tenets” I constructed my “technique”. Gratitude and admiration made Liszt at that time my master and my friend.’

Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ for organ was composed in 1850 and first published the following year together with a somewhat perfunctory arrangement for piano duet, presumably to make it more accessible (and saleable). The theme is taken from the chorale of the Anabaptists in the first act of Meyerbeer’s immensely successful opera Le prophète, premiered in Paris the previous year; but unlike Liszt’s three previous Illustrations from the same opera, the Fantasy and Fugue seems to spring as much from his religious side as the theatrical. The Fantasy, the first of the work’s three clearly defined sections, is a rhapsodic improvisation, challenging, emotional and dramatic, but the second (Adagio) is more of a devout meditation in the remote key of F sharp major which, paradoxically, is often associated in Liszt with both sacred and profane love. A thunderous cadenza links to the final Fugue which has all the rhythmical and dramatic traits of his so-called ‘Mephisto style’, and it is likely that the ultimate triumphant blaze of C major represents the defeat of those forces. Saint-Saëns, who played the work with great success in the 1870s (once in the presence of Liszt), declared it ‘the most extraordinary organ work in existence’. And yet Liszt himself never took the obvious step of transcribing it for the piano, as he did with his other organ masterpiece, the Prelude and Fugue on B–A–C–H. So pianists are fortunate that Busoni remedied this omission with such magnificent aplomb.

Certainly it is hard to think of anyone else who could have accomplished a concert transcription of such ringing authenticity. There are passages where Busoni’s own distinctive palette is clearly discernible but, equally, the lessons assimilated from his immersion in Liszt’s keyboard writing are uncannily fruitful and convincing. Perhaps this is a rare instance of the transcription actually being an improvement on the original; a contentious statement, no doubt, but Busoni’s pianistic ingenuity ensures that none of the grandeur, even bombast, of Liszt’s conception is lost or diluted while achieving a clarity and brilliance that is often lost in the cavernous acoustics where great romantic organs generally reside.

In his later years, when most of Busoni’s Mozart transcriptions were written, he recanted his devotion to Liszt at least to the extent of observing that the path to ‘the new way’ had been obscured by the ‘spiritual tyranny of Beethoven and, in a practical sense, Wagner’—and by extension, Liszt. This had led to a certain condescension towards Mozart, the Magic Child, whose absolute purity of expression should serve as a beacon to the modern composer seeking to free himself of the accumulated neuroticism and aggrandisement of the nineteenth century.

Among Busoni’s charming and perceptive ‘Aphorisms on Mozart’, which he wrote on the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s birth for a Berlin newspaper, we find one that might have been inspired by the Andantino from the twenty-one-year-old Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major K271, which Busoni transcribed for solo piano: ‘In him the antique and the rococo combine in perfect ways without resulting in a new architecture.’ The florid cantilena, framed by the canonic severity of the orchestra and interspersed with fragments of poignant recitative, evokes in the original an almost palpable feeling of opera seria. Notable here is the way in which Busoni suppresses the elaboration to be found in his other transcriptions in favour of faithful and almost unadorned reproduction in pianistic language of this sublime scena. He makes discreet excisions to avoid pointless repetitions which have meaning only in the contrast between piano and orchestra, but only in the cadenza (his own in place of Mozart’s) does his own personality intrude.

Busoni’s seven-volume Bach Edition includes not only performing editions and analyses of most of Bach’s keyboard works but also several contrapuntal studies, most of his own transcriptions and two versions of the immense Fantasia contrappuntistica. This life-long study and absorption was what led him in the first instance to the belief that a revival of the art of counterpoint might prove a guiding light to the future.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue, an uncompleted sequence of studies in fugal writing called Contrapuncti (‘his last and greatest work’, according to Busoni), is a compendium of contrapuntal skills at that summit of perfection to which the great master had taken them at the end of his life. Its final fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, was in Busoni’s words ‘planned on four fugue subjects, of which two are complete and the third commenced’. In the manuscript, a note thought to be in the hand of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, states that ‘At this point where the theme B–A–C–H becomes the countersubject, the composer died’, although some scholars believe that the work was abandoned at an earlier date. (In this recording this melancholy moment arrives at 2'05 in Fugue III.) In any event, a quadruple fugue is a fearsome event. In the first place the four themes must at some point combine, and the additional possibilities of interlocking countersubjects and their inversions become, as Busoni suggested, ‘as numerous as chess moves’. Conjecture as to the identity of the missing fourth subject was pursued by musicologists with the same fervour as mathematicians unravelling an unproven theorem. From his encounters with two German-born scholars then living in Chicago, Busoni was satisfied that the theme must be the opening subject of Contrapunctus I, which met all the requirements of compatibility and thus would ‘close the circle of the whole work’. He then set about completing Fugue III and composing Fugue IV, initially with a fairly vague idea of creating ‘something between a composition by C[ésar] Franck and the Hammerklavier Sonata’.

No sooner had his first version been published under the title Grosse Fuge, Busoni withdrew it and started work on the version heard in this recording, which he named Fantasia contrappuntistica, edizione definitiva. Later two further versions appeared: a simplified and abbreviated Versio minore and a version for two pianos.

Where Bach had been constrained by the laws of harmony as they then existed (though stretching them to the limit), Busoni decided that he should honour Bach’s genius while pursuing each line according to its own integrity and logic thus creating new and viable harmonies for his own time. ‘But new harmony could only arise naturally from the foundation of an extremely cultivated polyphony and establish a right for its appearance; this requires strict tuition and a considerable mastery of melody.’ And it is sometimes startling to discover that the most jarring moments have their origin not far away in Bach. A case in point is the tumultuous pile-up in the final Stretta which emanates from Contrapunctus VIII.

Busoni devoted as much thought to the overall form as to the contrapuntal detail. He went so far as to add drawings to represent the architecture of his conception—a ship with five taut sails (‘moving over difficult waters’) superimposed on a cross (‘the form of a cathedral’) and a building whose doors represent the different ‘chapters’ of his narrative.

His most radical change from the Grosse Fuge (and an inspired one) was to begin the work with an evocative Prelude based on the ancient chorale ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’, not such a huge task since much of it existed already as one of his Elegies. In Fugues I, II and III, Busoni follows the plan of Contrapunctus XIV more or less exactly but adds his own voice in several ways, notably in the vastly extended compass and the chromatic modification of some voices to accord with his logical ‘modern’ vision of harmony, together with the insertion of references to a fifth theme of his own device which is first heard at the beginning of the piece. Another feature is the anchoring of Fugue I on a deep pedal D, causing it to emerge as if from a great depth, something we can observe in the distortions of old music ‘through a glass darkly’ of composers like Berio and Schnittke at the other end of the twentieth century. There follow an eerie Intermezzo (misticamente, visionario), three Variations of increasing complexity and a Cadenza before Fugue IV, which (of necessity) is entirely Busoni’s own composition. An ethereal reminiscence of the opening chorale presages the hectic Stretta before three imposing statements of the subject of Fugue I (two partial, one decisive) bring the huge edifice to a fittingly grand conclusion.

Easy listening it is certainly not, and it has been argued that the density of Busoni’s contrapuntal mesh makes it at times ‘unhearable’, even if it were played by a computer. This fear, in turn, has led some commentators and performers to adopt a disengaged rationality towards his music. All the evidence—and there is plenty of it including one pricelessly illuminating recording of Busoni playing a single Prelude and Fugue by Bach—leads to the conclusion that his goals were heightened expression through indefatigable work allied to unerring artistic instinct. The expression marks in the Fantasia contrappuntistica, although sparing, encompass both the practical (quasi trombe dolci, vivace misurato, continuando) and the emotional, even spiritual (gemendo, ansioso, misticamente).

Busoni believed that Bach and Mozart showed us that music can somehow reach beyond the realm of man and should not be overly concerned with the day to day struggles and sensations of existence. The Fantasia’s manifold inspirations multiply with repeated hearings when felicities can suddenly emerge that at first were buried in the welter of activity; so perhaps it is ideally suited to the modern recording medium. This said, Busoni can be credited with a real ‘music of the future’. Whether he achieved his other aim of creating ‘one of the most significant works of modern piano literature’ may remain eternally under debate but, since its fascination continues to intrigue after more a century, it was far more than an idle boast.

Hamish Milne © 2008

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