Though Ferruccio Busoni routinely gets a few pages in surveys of the music of the first half of the 20th century, he remains an elusive figure, hard to place convincingly in context. He was one of the great pianists of his time, and his writings on the future of music are often far-sighted, but his importance as a composer seems to escape us. With a few exceptions, his work seems more interesting in prospect than it proves to be in performance, and even the major pieces, such as the gigantic Piano Concerto and the final, unfinished opera, Doktor Faust, refuse to come into sharp focus.
The core of that output is the vast amount of music Busoni composed for piano. But apart from the transcriptions of Bach, most of those works are rarely heard today; that's partly because they, like so much of Busoni's music, have become unfashionable, but more importantly, it's because much of it is so difficult to play, and few pianists have the time and the 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 for Hyperion, and he has now assembled an extensive collection of solo piano works from the last 15 years of Busoni's life.
Some of this music has apparently never been recorded before. While some of the pieces here are clearly designed for Busoni's own recitals—bravura showpieces in the tradition of Liszt—others reveal his own explorations of tonality, and the search for new systems of harmonic organisation that give Busoni a place, though a peripheral one, in the development of modernism. The most substantial works here are the set of seven Elegies and the six Sonatinas, and among the independent pieces the Fantasia after JS Bach and the Toccata: Preludio, Fantasia, Ciaccona; there are also myriad smaller pieces, often concerned with developing particular aspects of piano playing.
Hamelin handles all of this 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. And while musically it remains uneven, so that I wouldn't recommend listening to all three discs in a single sitting, as a set to dip into and sometimes to marvel at, it's certainly worthwhile.