Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’
for organ was composed in 1850 and first published the following year together with a somewhat perfunctory arrangement for piano duet, presumably to make it more accessible (and saleable). The theme is taken from the chorale of the Anabaptists in the first act of Meyerbeer’s immensely successful opera Le prophète
, premiered in Paris the previous year; but unlike Liszt’s three previous Illustrations
from the same opera, the Fantasy and Fugue
seems to spring as much from his religious side as the theatrical. The Fantasy
, the first of the work’s three clearly defined sections, is a rhapsodic improvisation, challenging, emotional and dramatic, but the second (Adagio
) is more of a devout meditation in the remote key of F sharp major which, paradoxically, is often associated in Liszt with both sacred and profane love. A thunderous cadenza links to the final Fugue
which has all the rhythmical and dramatic traits of his so-called ‘Mephisto style’, and it is likely that the ultimate triumphant blaze of C major represents the defeat of those forces. Saint-Saëns, who played the work with great success in the 1870s (once in the presence of Liszt), declared it ‘the most extraordinary organ work in existence’. And yet Liszt himself never took the obvious step of transcribing it for the piano, as he did with his other organ masterpiece, the Prelude and Fugue on B–A–C–H
. So pianists are fortunate that Busoni remedied this omission with such magnificent aplomb.
Certainly it is hard to think of anyone else who could have accomplished a concert transcription of such ringing authenticity. There are passages where Busoni’s own distinctive palette is clearly discernible but, equally, the lessons assimilated from his immersion in Liszt’s keyboard writing are uncannily fruitful and convincing. Perhaps this is a rare instance of the transcription actually being an improvement on the original; a contentious statement, no doubt, but Busoni’s pianistic ingenuity ensures that none of the grandeur, even bombast, of Liszt’s conception is lost or diluted while achieving a clarity and brilliance that is often lost in the cavernous acoustics where great romantic organs generally reside.
from notes by Hamish Milne © 2008