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Hyperion Records

CDA68044 - Busoni & Strauss: Violin Concertos
CDA68044

Recording details: June 2013
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Michael George
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: August 2014
DISCID: 640EC507
Total duration: 63 minutes 2 seconds

The Romantic Violin Concerto
Busoni & Strauss: Violin Concertos
Quasi andante  [8'02]
Allegro  [15'04]

German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender returns to the Romantic Violin Concerto series having dazzled the critics with her ‘great lyrical force and tremendous sense of drama’ in her recording of the Reger concerto. Here she appears with Hyperion house band the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, in Volume 16: concertos by Busoni and Strauss, each composer’s only example of the genre.

In D major, the key of Beethoven’s and Brahms’s violin concertos, Busoni’s Violin Concerto is clearly intended to continue their lineage—significantly, Busoni wrote cadenzas for both of them—although it never descends into mere imitation. Although it uses quite a large orchestra, it is transparently scored, with plenty of Italianate cantilena for the soloist. Also included is Busoni’s transcription of the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, which brings the solo violin to the fore, with instrumental obbligati representing the vocal contributions.

The seventeen-year-old Strauss wrote his Violin Concerto in 1881–2, during his final year at the Ludwigsgymnasium. The work was dedicated to Strauss’s violin teacher Benno Walter (1847–1901), concertmaster of the Bavarian Court Orchestra. The work is fairly unknown on the concert platform; as Tully Potter writes in his booklet notes, Tanja Becker-Bender’s interpretation should win it new friends.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Close contemporaries with very different attitudes to composition, Ferruccio Busoni and Richard Strauss did have a few things in common. Both came from musical families and their fathers played wind instruments—Ferdinando Busoni the clarinet, Franz Strauss the horn—so they had every encouragement to favour a cantabile line in their works. Although both were pianists, they composed beautifully for the violin, but, alas, only in their youth. On 15 March 1923 Busoni wrote to the greatest interpreter of his violin music, Adolf Busch: ‘I would like to write something specially for you, and am thinking of a string quartet with solo violin (which would require another violinist as first in the quartet), and would mean a third phase for me.’ But the composer was already ailing, and he died the following year without fulfilling this intriguing project or inaugurating his ‘third phase’.

Busoni was an interesting amalgam of Italian and German influences—one might say that he had the Italian love of sonority and the German love of structure—but in his make-up the Italian overwhelmingly predominated. His father was completely Italian while his mother, the concert pianist Anna Weiss, was half Italian and hailed from that most cosmopolitan of cities, Trieste. Utterly Italianized, she was more conversant with French than German, speaking German only if she had to. What she did give Ferruccio was German musical culture, although it was his father who insisted that the boy should study Bach. Born in Empoli in 1866, the young Busoni had a chaotic childhood but somehow his colossal musical talent came through intact. In 1875–8 he spent much time in Vienna, widening his horizons; and fifteen months in Graz with the composer and teacher Wilhelm Mayer confirmed his Austro-German sympathies. He was himself to become an inspired teacher, despite his burgeoning career as a piano virtuoso. From 1894 he was based in Berlin, although during the Great War he lived first in Italy and then in Switzerland.

From the age of seven Busoni composed copiously and by his late teens he was being published regularly. Apart from two excellent, if rather early, string quartets, his main gifts to violinists were two sonatas with piano, from 1889 and 1898–1900, and the Violin Concerto, from 1896–7. He felt that his maturity began with the Second Violin Sonata. These works arose from his friendship with the distinguished Dutch violinist Henri Petri (1856–1914), a pupil of Joseph Joachim who worked as concertmaster, soloist, quartet leader and teacher in Leipzig and then in Dresden. Petri’s son Egon, a notable pianist, became a Busoni acolyte.

In D major, the key of Beethoven’s and Brahms’s violin concertos, Busoni’s Violin Concerto is clearly intended to continue their lineage—significantly, Busoni wrote cadenzas for both of them—although it never descends into mere imitation. It uses quite a large orchestra (three flutes, one doubling piccolo, two each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings), but it is transparently scored, with plenty of Italianate cantilena for the soloist.

The work plays continuously but is in three discernible movements: there is even a vestigial scherzo towards the end of the opening Allegro moderato—Busoni was perhaps thinking of Brahms’s original plan for a four-movement concerto with scherzo. This first movement is considerably foreshortened in comparison with those of Beethoven and Brahms, and is rich in both themes and transformations of themes. From the solo violin’s first entry, picking up on the attractive opening motif, Busoni provides a good deal of rewarding passagework for Petri, but it is always moving the action forward. The central Quasi andante aspires to the soaring lyricism of Beethoven’s Larghetto and an oboe solo is a nod to Brahms’s Adagio: the classic ternary song form can be glimpsed, with a gently agitated central section, but the first theme is considerably transformed on its return. A brief cadenza leads into the brilliant Allegro impetuoso, which Busoni described as ‘a sort of Carnival’: its exciting final wind-up invites the applause which invariably ensues—at the premiere in Berlin on 8 October 1897, with the composer conducting the Philharmonic in an all-Busoni programme, Petri took five curtain calls and had to repeat the finale. Dedicated to Petri, the concerto was published by Breitkopf und Härtel in 1899.

Sadly, Busoni’s huge reputation is not reflected by his representation in concert programmes. Even the Violin Concerto has never ‘clicked’ with the public. One of its champions, Joseph Szigeti, found that he had to convince the composer of its quality: after he had played it to Busoni in London, the composer said: ‘Well, I must admit it’s a good work, though unpretentious!’ The fact is that Busoni is known as much for his transcriptions and arrangements as for his original music. Perhaps it was his desire to inhabit the works of his predecessors that led him to make his own versions of their creations. The transcription of the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is interesting in that it brings the solo violin to the fore, with instrumental obbligati representing the vocal contributions. Breitkopf und Härtel published it in 1916.

On the face of it, Richard Strauss had a more settled childhood and adolescence than Busoni. He was born and grew up in Munich, where his father Franz was principal horn of the Bavarian Court Orchestra and a musician of some consequence, and began piano lessons at the age of four. By the age of six he was composing, although he did not start formal composition lessons with the conductor Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer until he was eleven. He learnt the violin as well as piano. But the Strauss home was full of undercurrents: Franz was an irascible eccentric who had lost his first wife and their children to illness and had not been able to remarry until he was in his forties. His second wife Josephine was a loving mother to Richard but suffered from a nervous disposition which, from 1885 onwards, sometimes tipped over into mental illness. No doubt tensions at home contributed to the rather detached personality which Richard developed.

None of these shadows affects the Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1881–2, seventeen-year-old Strauss’s final year at the Ludwigsgymnasium—the finale was not completed until after the summer holiday following his graduation. The work was dedicated to Strauss’s violin teacher Benno Walter (1847–1901), concertmaster of the Bavarian Court Orchestra and his father’s first cousin, who on 14 March 1881 led a Munich performance of the teenager’s String Quartet in A major. Before beginning his concerto in earnest—he had been making preliminary sketches since 1878—Strauss made sure that he heard virtuoso pieces by Ernst, Spohr and Léonard. Scored for a classical orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings), the concerto is well composed in many ways but has acquired a reputation for being diffuse. It is not difficult to diagnose why: Strauss realizes that he needs to write some display music for Walter, but in the opening movement these bravura passages, unlike those in Busoni’s concerto, do not advance the musical argument. The listener is confronted at several points by an uneasy amalgam of surface activity and structural stasis, when some sort of conflict or interaction between soloist and orchestra is needed.

The Allegro is launched by a peremptory theme presented by the orchestra and after quite a brief tutti the solo violin enters. The second theme is nicely lyrical and later in the movement there is a third theme group related to the second, before the peremptory opening theme reappears. The writing for horn is superb, as one might expect from a young composer who heard the instrument being practised at home every day. It is a pity that Strauss did not return to this opening movement to revise it, as he proved in his first Horn Concerto—dating from more or less the same period—that he could fulfil all the necessary requirements. No gremlins afflict the second and third movements, which are successful in their youthful way. The Lento ma non troppo, in classic ABA song form, is lovely—again the horn writing is especially fine. The finale is a delightful rondo which quotes some of the material from the opening movement.

The Violin Concerto was first aired at the Bösendorfer Hall in Vienna on 5 December 1882, during a chamber recital by Benno Walter and pianist Eugenie Menter—who stepped aside so that Strauss could accompany the concerto himself. ‘The hall was reasonably full thanks to the complimentary tickets’, the eighteen-year-old reported to his parents, ‘and my concerto was very well received: applause after the first F major trill, applause after each movement and at the end two curtain calls, Walter and Menter otherwise had only one. Both played very well, and at least I didn’t make a mess of the accompaniment.’ The great critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that the concerto ‘betrays a great talent’; in later years he was not to be so kind to Strauss. The recital was repeated in Munich on 8 February 1883. The concerto was not heard with orchestra until 4 March 1890, when Walter played it at a Gürzenich concert in Cologne, conducted by Franz Wüllner, an early champion of Strauss. The composer himself first directed it on 17 February 1896, at the Liszt Society in Leipzig, with the future conductor Alfred Krasselt as soloist, and they took their joint interpretation to Vienna. That October, Franz Mannstaedt conducted two Berlin Philharmonic performances within a fortnight, with Krasselt and Waldemar Meyer as soloists. The work was published by Joseph Aibl in 1897. Despite all this exposure, the concerto did not find a niche in the pantheon; and the great violinists with whom Strauss worked as a conductor—including Kreisler, Busch and Szigeti—did not take it up. The present writer has heard persuasive performances by Lena Neudauer, Thomas Albertus Inberger and Ingolf Turban, and Tanja Becker-Bender’s interpretation should win it new friends.

Strauss did not give up the cause of the violin immediately. In 1883–4 he produced a splendid Piano Quartet and in 1887 a strong Violin Sonata with piano; and some of his symphonic poems, notably Ein Heldenleben, incorporated rewarding solos for the concertmaster. Just after World War II, he contemplated a second Violin Concerto and sketched three movements—as one was a minuet, he may have been thinking of quite a light chamber concerto—but this enticing prospect never saw the light of day.

Tully Potter © 2014


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