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Hyperion Records

CDA67951/3 - Busoni: Late Piano Music
Materia (1912) by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
Private Collection / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67951/3

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2013
DISCID: 9D0EB70B F3107B12 F80EB214
Total duration: 195 minutes 54 seconds

DIAPASON D'OR
CHOC DE CLASSICA
INTERNATIONAL PIANO CHOICE

'Works where Busoni found his truest voice … Hamelin, playing with unfaltering lucidity and authority, achieves an astonishing triumph even by his exalted standards. As always, Hyperion has done him proud … an album that could never be bettered' (Gramophone) » More

'Marc-André Hamelin’s performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto for Hyperion is one of the finest ever recorded of that mammoth work, and now he has produced what is arguably the most important collection of the solo piano music since Geoffrey Douglas Madge’s epic six-disc survey for Philips in 1987 … All the most significant works are here … Hamelin includes some rarities Madge omitted, notably Busoni’s first foray into 'Red Indian’ music, the spellbinding Indianisches Erntelied (not published till 2001) … As to the performances, they are all you could hope from a player of such quality, laced with repertoire he might have been born to interpret. This is playing of a very high order, such as—despite the now numerous competing versions of the Elegies, Sonatinas and Toccata—one seldom hears. Hamelin is well-nigh ideal in sensitivity of phrasing, clarity of tone and delineation of voices, not to mention subtlety of pedalling … He reminds you that you are listening to one of history’s greatest piano composers, a philosopher of the piano to whose ear and mind the whole of European concert music seems to have been continually present. A fabulous set, almost beyond praise' (BBC Music Magazine) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

'What comes through on listening to Hamelin is the underlying consistency of his approach over this music as a whole and, above all, the singularity of Busoni's musical vision and its relevance to composers and pianists almost a century on' (International Record Review)

'Few pianists have the time and technique to devote to music that is so little-known. Marc-André Hamelin is the shining exception. He demonstrated his Busoni credentials more than a decade ago with an outstanding account of the Piano Concerto … Hamelin handles all with great intelligence. There's a swagger when the music demands it, a fabulously refined sense of sonority and transparency when required. The technical challenges are surmounted so effortlessly that you begin to take the confidence of his playing for granted, when in fact it's a remarkable achievement' (The Guardian) » More

'The gift I'd choose for myself would be Marc-André Hamelin's magisterial three-disc survey of Busoni's later piano music—elusive and haunting material from a pivotal figure' (The Times) » More

'Hyperion does Busoni a great service in issuing this magnificent three-disc box. Those readers who know Busoni mainly (or only) via his transcriptions will have a whole new world revealed to them. Hamelin, one of today’s super-virtuosos but also a musician of the highest rank, seems to be the ideal interpreter, and is captured throughout in superb sound' (International Piano) » More

'This three-CD set presents Marc-André Hamelin, another formidable pianist, in Busoni works from the first quarter of the 20th century. The music draws from the heritage of Bach, Liszt and Wagner, while taking modern paths and anticipating atonality. Even when a particular piece seems amorphous or elusive, these elegies, fantasias, sonatinas and more are continually fascinating, especially in Mr. Hamelin’s commanding performances' (The New York Times)

'Hamelin's recent release of three CDs devoted to the late piano music of Ferruccio Busoni represents another milestone in an outstanding career … These three discs contain a number of pieces not previously recorded and also include a sampling of the numerous Bach arrangements Busoni is best known for. The programming is exemplary, the sound is alluring (from a Steinway piano recorded in London’s Henry Wood Hall) and the program notes are excellent. Bravo Hamelin!' (The Whole Note, Canada)

'L’impeccable virtuosité de Marc-André Hamelin se joue des pièges recélés par ces redoutables partitions; sa quête faustienne, à la fois analytique et méditée, assume la dimension philosophique quasi médiévale de cette alchimie sonore et nous en livre une référence absolue' (Classica, France)
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

‘Marc-André Hamelin gelingt, alle Facetten in exzellenten Interpretationen darzustellen … seiner qualitativ hochwertigen Edition der Klaviermusik von Ferruccio Busoni dürfte deshalb über eine lange Zeit der Referenzstatus sicher sein' (Piano, Germany)
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

Late Piano Music
CD1
Berceuse  [4'25]
CD2
Molto tranquillo  [1'31]
Molto tranquillo  [0'53]
Vivace  [1'29]
Andante  [3'49]
No 2: Andante  [2'00]
CD3
Klavierübung, 1925
No 4: Allegro  [2'09]
Étude: Allegro  [3'43]

‘Hamelin mastered its rising and falling cascades of scales, biting rhythms and thunderous textures as though he was Busoni himself’ (The Birmingham News, USA)

Marc-André Hamelin is indisputably the king of Busoni pianists. He triumphantly masters the extraordinary technical difficulties and contrapuntal complexities this composer presents. This generously priced triple album offers most of Busoni’s mature works and the widest selection of pieces from the Klavierübung so far recorded, many of them for the first time.

(Studio Master: Please note that the recording of the Fantasia after J S Bach included here is taken from Marc-André Hamelin's 1998 album 'The Composer-Pianists' and has been up-sampled to 24-bit 96 kHz.)


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Born in Empoli, near Florence, Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) was the only child of the clarinettist Ferdinando Busoni and the pianist Anna Weiss. A prodigy whose precocious career fortunately went beyond a brief flash, he gave his first recital and wrote his first composition at the age of seven, and published his first work when ten. He completed his private studies in composition (in Graz) while still a fifteen-year-old teenager and, two years later, he began contributing reviews and articles to a Trieste newspaper. He later became aware that he had written too much music and published several works prematurely. Jürgen Kindermann’s thematic catalogue has 303 numbers for the original works and 115 for the cadenzas, arrangements and editions. Busoni considered that his Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, completed in late 1898, was his actual ‘opus 1’.

Busoni’s career as a highly respected piano teacher started in 1888 with one- or two-year appointments in Helsinki, Moscow and Boston. After a short period of activity as a freelance pianist based in New York, he settled in 1894 in Berlin, whence he managed his career as one of the most esteemed pianists of his time. In addition to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, he championed Liszt and Alkan. Several of his private pupils, including Rudolph Ganz, Mark Hambourg, Eduard Steuermann, Theodor Szántó and Gino Tagliapietra, made a successful career. Returning to Berlin in 1920, after almost five years of self-imposed exile in Zurich, he taught composition to a small group of advanced students among whom was Kurt Weill. A highly cultivated person and a passionate collector of first editions, he kept an open house for musicians and intellectuals of various disciplines who sought his advice and enjoyed his brilliant conversation.

Like Liszt, Busoni devoted a large part of his production to the piano and became an acknowledged master of the transcription. This played against his reputation as a composer (which was what really mattered for him) until at least the centenary of his birth in 1966, if not the 1980s, because his name, for many, was associated solely with his Bach arrangements. Yet his output also comprises several works for chamber ensembles and for orchestra (including concertos), as well as songs and operas. His massive Piano Concerto of 1904 (recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67143), whose fifth and final movement calls for a male chorus, with which he stylistically bid farewell to the past, and the Fantasia contrappuntistica (recorded by Hamish Milne on Hyperion CDA67677), a completion of the final fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue within a large-scale original structure, written in 1910, have become much better known and admired over the last thirty years or so. This is also true of his four operas, especially Doktor Faust (1916–23), the final masterpiece that sums up his mature years as a composer. Although his music was for many years more or less ignored, Busoni’s piano works, even those written during his teenage years, are now recorded with increasing frequency. The present selection offers most of the mature works and the widest selection of pieces from the Klavierübung so far recorded, most of them for the first time.

The Elegies, the earliest work in this set, are a group of six pieces written in late 1907 (a seventh one was added in 1909). They are each dedicated to one of Busoni’s piano pupils, of whom three (Gottfried Galston, Egon Petri, Michael Zadora) would remain among the most devoted members of his entourage in the last years of his life. Appropriately enough for pieces that herald his entry into a new era of tonal organization, the first one is entitled Nach der Wendung (Recueillement). Shortly after reaching this ‘turning point’ in his compositional career, and having paused to meditate, Busoni wrote that he had finally found his real self. Yet the Elegies look as much to the past as to the future, and as such reflect the ambiguity that is part of his personality as a composer.

The second piece, All’Italia! (In modo napolitano), which uses material from the second and fourth movements of the Piano Concerto, begins with a striking juxtaposition of the major and minor versions of the same chords for the presentation of an elegiac Neapolitan song; its middle section is a brilliant tarantella. The third Elegy, which would find its definitive form as the opening Chorale Prelude of the Fantasia contrappuntistica, is based on the Lutheran chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr. It bears the title Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu dir (‘My soul trembles and hopes of thee’), and several interpretative directions convey its oppressive atmosphere (ängstlich, mit unterdrückter Empfindung, ansioso).

The fourth and fifth Elegies use material from the Turandot Suite (1904–5), which Busoni wrote for Karl Vollmoeller’s adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s play and later incorporated into the opera Turandot (1916–17). Turandots Frauengemach is a delicate ‘scherzando’ setting of the well-known melody Greensleeves framed by sections in a different tonality; it is sung on the syllable ‘la’ by women behind the curtain in the women’s quarters. The fleeting and veiled Die Nächtlichen (Walzer) freely adapts the suite’s seventh movement.

Erscheinung (Notturno) is taken from the opera Die Brautwahl (1906–11), on which Busoni was already working. This nocturne is heard when a vision of the heroine Albertine appears (hence the title) at the window of a clock-tower. Its highly original final page features chords in the left hand with swift scales in the right in a bitonal relationship. At the end Busoni provides a variant of the three opening bars of the first piece to round off the cycle when it is played complete. The pianist can also use the standard ending and continue with the Berceuse (1909), added in a later edition. This strange, misty piece in soft dynamics (with both pedals depressed throughout) begins with a theme in long note values in the middle register above a rocking pedal movement; it continues with a bitonal section whose harmonies are blended with the pedal and concludes with bell-like sonorities. In October 1909 Busoni prepared an extended version for chamber orchestra entitled Berceuse élégiaque as a tribute to his recently departed mother.

Nuit de Noël (1908), a rarely played six-page ‘Esquisse’ (sketch) with French interpretative directions, was published in Paris by Durand. The accompaniment of the first section uses frail figurations based on fourths and fifths that suggest snowflakes on this unique night. Later a measured trill ostinato in the middle register serves as the background for a theme using a siciliana rhythm followed by a quotation of the Sicilian carol O sanctissima, known as O du fröhliche in German-speaking countries. The two pedals must remain depressed for much of this calm and delicate impressionistic piece featuring two indications asking the performer to suggest timpani and trumpets.

In May 1909, a few months before the death of his mother, Busoni had lost his father. In his memory the son created an original work, poised and noble in tone, out of three organ pieces by Bach: Busoni’s way of thanking his father for an early introduction to the music of a composer he had been championing for years. The Fantasia after J S Bach (by ‘Bach-Busoni’, as the composer is identified on the cover page) is the first of his works that can be called a Nachdichtung—a work resulting from such a free transcription or adaptation of a model that it becomes original and independent in its own right. Following an improvisatory-like introduction in the low register leading to a more chromatic theme, Busoni offers his piano versions of the first, second and seventh sections from the chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag, BWV766. He also amplifies the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen, BWV703 (from the Kirnberger chorale settings), as well as the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott, BWV602 (from the Orgelbüchlein).

In the summer of 1909 Busoni wrote under the title An die Jugend a series of twelve pieces grouped in four books; like the Elegies, they are dedicated to a group of his students, the young people referred to in the title. This ‘sequence’ of pieces (Folge, to quote from the subtitle) mixes four original works with eight transcriptions. The third book, recorded here, is entitled Giga, bolero e variazione and described as a ‘study after Mozart’. The Giga is Busoni’s version of the Gigue in G major, K574, with transpositions up and down an octave. The Bolero, taken from the finale of Act 3 of Le nozze di Figaro, is the fandango during which Susanna gives to the Count the letter sealed with a pin. Busoni transposes Mozart’s A minor to E minor, then to G minor. This enables him to connect with the Variazione, an energetic version of the Giga in duple rather than triple time. The present recording uses the extended second edition (Klavierübung, Book 6, 1925 edition).

Between 1910 and 1921 Busoni wrote six Sonatinas totalling nearly fifty minutes. They show him composing first in his radical idiom and, from 1915 onwards, in the much more approachable style that, in 1920, he would call Junge Klassizität (‘Young Classicism’), by which he meant ‘the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong and beautiful forms’. The first Sonatina (1910) presents a theme followed by seven variations, with a virtuoso section featuring double notes using the whole-tone scale. Sonatina seconda (1912), written without key and time signatures and without bar lines, concludes with a passage featuring the most dissonant chords that Busoni ever used. These strange, occult sonorities are heard in Doktor Faust when the three students from Cracow bring Faust a magical book. The piece, which Busoni described as ‘senza tonalità’, holds a special place in the literature showing the composer’s importance for twentieth-century music.

The Sonatina ‘ad usum infantis Madeline M* Americanae’ (No 3, 1915) is dedicated to a girl of probably eighteen who was a friend of Busoni’s elder son, Benvenuto. It consists of five movements, of which the third is a march and the fifth a polonaise later used as the concluding number of the opera Arlecchino (1914–16). Busoni may have intended it for the harpsichord (‘pro clavicimbalo [sic] composita’)—he had purchased a specimen from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1910—but it is played here, as is usual, on the piano (only two of the fifteen or so recordings use the harpsichord). The Sonatina ‘in diem nativitatis Christi MCMXVII’ (No 4, 1917) begins with a lightly dissonant contrapuntal section that suggests Hindemith’s music from the 1930s onwards. Its third and fourth sections (out of six) stand out with an imitation of bells (a recurring motif in Busoni’s music) and a siciliana rhythm.

The Sonatina brevis ‘in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni’ (No 5, 1918) is a Nachdichtung of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV905 (of dubious authenticity). Following an original three-bar introduction featuring descending diminished sevenths, Busoni quotes the beginning of the model but then follows it in the freest imaginable manner. After using the fugue’s first two bars he only takes inspiration from it, resorting to adventurous counterpoint, with the falling motif worked into the texture, and concludes on the dominant. The last Sonatina, No 6, entitled Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen (1920), is a short paraphrase based on the Act 4 chorus, the Flower Song (with Carmen’s fate motif, characterized by an augmented second, as a transition), the Habanera, and the Prelude to Act 1, with a coda (marked Andante visionario) based on the fate motif. Despite its virtuosity, this attractive work is not so expansive as many examples of the operatic paraphrase.

After settling in Berlin in 1894, Busoni returned to the United States four times for concert tours (in 1904, 1910, 1911 and 1915). In 1910 he met his former student Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875–1921), now an ethnomusicologist who, in 1907, had published The Indians’ Book, a 550-page collection of songs and stories. On 12 April 1911, during the crossing from New York to Cherbourg, he wrote an eighty-bar sketch entitled Indianisches Erntelied as a first attempt at using one of these melodies, an ‘Indian harvest song’ of the Laguna Pueblo. He dedicated the piece, whose flowing arpeggios and scale figurations are played quietly throughout except near the end, to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a fellow passenger along with the dying Gustav Mahler. Its first performance was given by Karl Lutchmayer at the Royal College of Music on 23 February 1999 as part of a celebration in honour of the composer (and great Busoni connoisseur) Ronald Stevenson. Following its presentation at a Busoni conference in November 1999 the score was published in 2001 by the Busoni specialist Antony Beaumont from the manuscript held by the British Library.

In 1913 Busoni dedicated to Natalie Curtis the Indianische Fantasie for piano and orchestra, drawing upon themes from her anthology. Just before returning to Europe in August 1915, at the end of his final, eight-month stay in New York, he composed the Indianisches Tagebuch (‘Indian Diary’), a group of four studies on motifs by ‘America’s Redskins’, as written on the title page. The first piece is rather chromatic; it has attracted Michael Finnissy, who used a gesture as part of No 8 of his Verdi Transcriptions for solo piano (1982–5). The second piece, the only one to use themes not found in the concertante work, is a toccata featuring a sixteen-bar ostinato in octaves underlying figurations that fly over much of the upper part of the keyboard. The third piece uses a noble and lyrical cello-like theme in the middle register; its light middle section in the upper register recalls a passage from Lyapunov’s Térek, the fourth of his Études d’exécution transcendante (1897–1905). The final piece also features a lyrical theme and calls for a rich texture, especially at the end. Immediately after completing what was the first book of his Indianisches Tagebuch Busoni embarked on a second one, a study for chamber orchestra entitled Gesang vom Reigen der Geister (‘Song of the Spirit Dance’); this was to be the last of his works inspired by Indian themes.

Busoni, who was fascinated in his late years by the contrapuntal possibilities of Bach’s works, published in 1917 two ‘contrapuntal studies’: one was an analytical edition of the Fantasy and Fugue in A minor, BWV904, the other a realization of the canons from the Musical Offering, BWV1079, published as Canonic Variations and Fugue ‘(on the theme by King Frederick the Great)’. After showing the layout in Bach’s original (using a different order from that of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe), Busoni presents the ‘Thema regium’ (played by both hands at a distance of two octaves) followed by his realization of nine canons, the last one being the fugue:

Andante alla breve (Thema regium)
Canon perpetuus: two parts surrounding the theme, one bar apart; with note values twice as long as in Bach
Quaerendo invenietis: ‘Seek and you shall find’; mirror canon with the follower, being the inversion of the ornamented theme, two bars apart
Canon a 4: four presentations of a theme, seven bars apart, going from one to four parts
Canon cancrizans: the theme against itself, but stated backwards
Per motum contrarium: the theme in the highest part, with two canonic parts moving in contrary motion, the follower starting a fourth lower than the leader
Per augmentationem contrario motu: the top part in inversion and twice as slow as the bottom one, around the ornamented theme in the middle part
Per tonos: canon at the fifth, one bar apart, against the ornamented theme in the top part; two repetitions out of the possible six
In unisono: canon at the fifth, one bar apart, with the theme in the bottom part, in octaves
Fuga canonica in epidiapente: fugue consisting of a canon at the fifth above, ten bars apart, with a third part underneath

The perpetual canon, scored for violin, flute and keyboard, is left out. Creating this concert version for two hands required much part-crossing and octave transposition, as well as minor modifications to link the pieces into a continuous stream. This is the work’s first recording since Gunnar Johansen, a pupil of Busoni’s disciple Egon Petri, included it in the first anthology of Busoni’s mature works, issued in 1965.

One of Busoni’s shortest and simplest works (besides pieces written in childhood) is a Prologo from a projected set of Notturni (‘Nocturnes’) begun in 1918 (there also exists an incomplete second piece entitled Il Sagramento). The completed snippet consists of twenty-three bars in A minor whose texture is very sparse, sometimes reduced to two parts in unison. It makes a brief appearance in Doktor Faust.

A major piano composition from Busoni’s late years is the Toccata, a stark and concentrated work at the beginning of which the composer, misquoting Frescobaldi, wrote ‘Non è senza difficoltà che si arriva al fine’ (‘One does not reach the end without difficulty’). It opens with a virtuoso Preludio based on a motif from the opera Die Brautwahl. Then follows a seven-section Fantasia, with contrasting tempos, in which the lyrical theme entrusted to the Duchess of Parma in Doktor Faust is heard twice. The concluding Ciaccona, based on a four-bar energetic sarabande rhythm, culminates in two stretto sections. The second is quite striking, with octaves in both hands, flying in opposite directions.

The first of the three pieces published in 1921 as Drei Albumblätter (Three Albumleaves) is an arrangement of the placid Albumblatt for flute and piano (1917); it soon found its way into the ‘Arioso’ of the opera Turandot. The second piece, an Andante with extended octave passages in the left hand, is a two-page fugato on a stepwise theme; it was used in Doktor Faust, as was the third (and longest) piece. Marked ‘in the style of a chorale prelude’, this one transposes down an octave Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV278, whose tenor part, in one of Busoni’s most brilliant inspirations, becomes a theme in its own right, in the top part.

The Perpetuum mobile (1922), published as part of the Klavierübung, is a shortened version (from 172 to 126 bars) of the second section of Romanza e Scherzoso for piano and orchestra, composed in the previous year (and as yet unrecorded). This little-known piece explores various types of swift semiquaver figurations (simple runs, thirds, octaves). Like so many of Busoni’s mature works, it is used in Doktor Faust.

The Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude resulted from a substantial revision of a large set of Variations and a Fugue on the celebrated Prelude in C minor (Op 28 No 20), which Busoni wrote in 1884 at the age of eighteen. In 1922 he added an introductory fugato and reduced the number of variations from eighteen to ten for inclusion in the first edition of the Klavierübung (1922), and then reduced it further to nine (by dropping the ‘Fantasia’) for the second edition (1925), used for the present recording. Its final pages consist of a ‘Scherzo finale’ in tarantella style with an ‘Hommage à Chopin’ in waltz rhythm as its middle section.

The Seven Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing (1923) show Busoni, more than ever, preoccupied with this important aspect of piano performance. The brief Preludietto starts out as a two-part invention featuring inversion of the first part but soon moves to a four-part texture. The much longer second piece has active accompaniment figurations based on an imitative treatment of a three-note motif. The two-page third piece focuses on double-note figurations limited to thirds and sixths in alternating hands. The fourth piece, the most impressive one, consists of a chorale melody, presented like a cantus firmus, in long notes in one hand against swift triplet figurations in the other. The fifth piece is a Preludio with many demisemiquaver figurations that, thanks to an anticipation of the theme, leads into the sixth, marked Nach Mozart. This is a transcription of the music given to the two Armed Men in Die Zauberflöte (Act 2, Scene 7); the accompaniment figuration in quavers is delicately restated quasi appoggiature in the last page. The seventh and final piece, entitled Mit Anwendung des III. Pedals (Steinway & Sons Sustaining-Pedal), is an early example of the use of the Steinway’s middle (or sostenuto) pedal, which Percy Grainger was to employ so often. The sonorities of the bottom one- or two-staff system are held by this pedal, while the contents of the top system can unfold without causing the music to become blurred. In some passages the pianist must depress the una corda pedal simultaneously.

The Prélude et étude en arpèges (1923) was Busoni’s contribution to the École des arpèges by his friend Isidore Philipp (1863–1958), an eminent piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. The Prélude of this thirteen-page work features two sections in bitonal, delicate volante arpeggios surrounding a melancolico section that develops into a quasi-étude for left-hand tremolos; a toccata-like coda concludes the piece. The opening of the Étude reminds one of Chopin’s first étude from Op 10, with fast arpeggios played above a cantus firmus in long values in the left hand. Marked violinisticamente articolato, the piece’s chief difficulty is the unusual passage of a finger above or below the rest of the hand. It ends, not surprisingly, with a flurry of arpeggios in both hands held by the pedal.

Between 1918 and 1922 Busoni compiled what, following Bach’s model, he called Klavierübung (‘Keyboard Practice’). First issued in five volumes (208 pages), it appeared posthumously in 1925 in a ten-volume edition (284 pages). This widely varied collection consists of exercises, studies and arrangements of pieces (including his own) dealing with a specific difficulty, as well as full-scale works, such as the Chopin Variations, the Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing, and revisions of the Paganini-Liszt Études. Apart from the larger works, very few pieces from this collection have been recorded before. The present set offers seven of them, discussed here in the order in which they appear in the second edition.

The Preludio, marked Allegro festivo, from Book 2, is in D flat major but ends abruptly with a cadence in C major; it calls for stepwise movements in the outer (or inner) fingers while the others are busy filling the harmony. Another Preludio, from Book 5, is a double-note study in both hands alternating mostly thirds and fifths, but played without recourse to the third finger. The five-page piece marked Veloce e leggiero (Book 5) was written in the first days of January 1924 and is Busoni’s very last composition. It makes much use of symmetry around one note and features an angular motif, with wide intervals, that one would expect in a sardonic piece by Prokofiev. Book 6, devoted to the staccato technique, is represented here by four pieces. The Vivace moderato, con precisione is a daunting toccata-like study in which both hands juggle with leaps and an uninterrupted chain of chords (some involving wide intervals). The Variations-Studie nach Mozart is the well-known (and often recorded) Serenade from Don Giovanni; it is the first of two studies after Mozart, the second one being the revised Giga and its variation that frame the Bolero in Book 3 of An die Jugend. A piece entitled Motive (the plural of the German word for what, in the singular form, reads ‘motif’ in English; thus ‘Motifs’), is a study in double notes focusing mostly on alternating thirds, seconds and octaves. The final exercise, an Allegro, is a relentless toccata in C major calling mostly for thirds alternating between the two sets of outer fingers.

As we have seen, Busoni suffered from becoming celebrated through his transcriptions, although the technique itself is found in many of the original works included in this anthology. His disciple Friedrich Schnapp (1900–1983) recalled that Gerda, the celebrated pianist’s wife, was asked at a concert in the United States if she was ‘Mrs Bach-Busoni’. Thanks to the efforts of several disciples and many champions (not to speak of a growing body of scholars) since his death, Busoni’s contribution as an important transition figure in the history of music in the early twentieth century and as a prophetic personality (seen, for instance, in such radical works as the Sonatina seconda) is now better assessed and understood. Moreover, he is now seen as a key figure in the ‘network’ of composer-pianists that encompasses Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan before him, and Leopold Godowsky, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and Ronald Stevenson after him. They are known for works noted for their demands in virtuosity and stamina, and a conception of transcription and homage as an integral part of their art is common to all. Marc-André Hamelin is himself an important link in this lineage, thanks to his championship of these composers as a performer, and to his own contributions to this great tradition as a composer.

Marc-André Roberge © 2013

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