Few composers have so determinedly avoided popularity as Busoni. An idealist, he dismissed one musical luminary after another. Schumann and Mendelssohn quickly became irrelevant to his thoughts, while his attitude to Liszt ranged from distaste to worship to rejection. He responded to Chopin with a mix of attraction and repulsion, had serious misgivings about much of Beethoven and even his beloved Mozart failed to survive his intimidating scrutiny. Forbidding to the last, Busoni’s career as one of the most celebrated pianists at the turn of the century might seem to contradict such austerity, yet even as a performer he advised his students to ‘never be carried away by temperament’, the reverse of Horowitz.
Such reflection gives a vital clue to Hamelin’s three-CD album of the late piano music, works where Busoni found his truest voice. Given his distinctive quality, it is hardly surprising to find Busoni described as ‘one of those lonely crags which stand outside the great stream of musical history’. Even Alfred Brendel admits that Busoni gives you ‘a deliciously hard time’, noting how the seven Elegies in particular derive from late Liszt, where even the darkest-hued introspection is clouded still further. Here you will find rolling arpeggios, tremolandos and whirling gyrations stilled by an abrupt and alien cadence. The Sonatina seconda is without key, time signature or bar-lines, while the Toccata shows a blaze of virtuosity that tells you much of Busoni’s pianism. Yet such outbursts are rare in a composer who, to quote Brendel again, invariably turns from exuberance to bitterness.
Such strangeness demands rare skill and a special empathy for an idiom which for many will seem recondite and remote. And it is in this sense that Hamelin, playing with unfaltering lucidity and authority, achieves an astonishing triumph even by his exalted standards. As always, Hyperion (complementing Hamelin’s earlier recording of the Piano Concerto -12/99) has done him proud. Marc-André Roberge’s booklet-notes weave you through one intricacy and anomaly after another; and so, although this is essentially an album for specialists, it is one that could never be bettered.