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. His recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto for this label (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder) is impressive enough (rivalling John Ogdon’s account). This set seems in a higher league still.
The works are presented chronologically, dating from 1907 through to 1923. Each disc works well as a programme in itself, yet there is something about immersing oneself in the total three-disc experience that really allows the listener to fully enter this elusive, ever-fascinating world. The journey begins with the six Elegies (1907, with the final one added in 1909). They usher in the extended, complex harmonies that characterise Busoni’s late period. Thus we hear late Liszt (No 1, Nach der Wendung) melding into an almost Scriabinesque chromaticism. Hamelin’s playing here sets the stall for the entire set. Technically, nothing stretches him, but his technique remains unobtrusive as he searches to reveal the dark heart of Busoni (try the Chorale Prelude, the third Elegie, or the processional of the sixth, which uses material from Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl, for unadulterated darkness).
Inevitably, perhaps, Bach does figure by name—in the quarter-hour Fantasia nach JS Bach. Here, it is Hamelin’s beauty of tone and his ability to conjure the music’s fragility that shine through—the peace found at the end is very special indeed.
Just as the Elegies provide the majority of the first disc’s playing time, so it is the six Sonatinas that dominate the second. Each of these reveals the perfection of Busoni’s mode of expression. Again, one can point to similarities with other composers: late Scriabin in the Second (which Busoni marks ‘senza tonilità’), and a pre-echo of Hindemith in the Fourth. Perhaps Hamelin could have more humour in the Sixth (Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen), and here, perhaps, Ogdon’s EMI recording holds the upper hand; yet Hamelin’s reading seems to imply a melding of Carmen and Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair from Petrushka, an intriguing combination. Such harmonic virtuosity is a hallmark of Busoni—later, in the Indianisches Tagebuch, it is the seamless inclusion of American-Indian melodies that is so impressive.
Hamelin’s attunement with Busoni is clearly evident in the magnificent Toccata: Preludio, Fantasia, Ciaccona, which opens the final disc. The music quotes both Die Brautwahl and Doktor Faust, and the mode of expression is itself distinctly operatic in nature. The most famous piece on the third disc is the Chopin Variations (on the C minor Prelude). Hamelin realises the twilit aspect of the piece impeccably. Even the didactic Seven Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing benefit immeasurably from the tissue-delicate delivery that Hamelin excels at. And if it is virtuosity you want, the Perpetuum mobile (1922) is just the thing.