Richard Whitehouse
International Record Review
September 2014

Almost the only thing Busoni and Strauss had in common was an abandoning of classical forms—whether orchestral, chamber or instrumental—in their maturity. That said, and for all his early mastery as a pianist, Busoni took longer to find his feet as a composer: to the extent that he did very little to promote a piece such as his Violin Concerto (1897), whose deceptively modest ambitions might well have communicated his name to a wider audience than was otherwise the case. Written for Henri Petri (father of Egon) and deploying sizeable forces with keen economy, its three movements comprise the deft amalgation of sonata allegro and scherzo, a songful 'Andante' whose animated central section is but a variation of what surrounds it, then a rondo whose exuberance is never allowed to outstay its welcome.

With its opening theme audibly made the basis of all which follows, and its several cadenza passages integrated into the larger structure, the work anticipates Busoni's later development more directly than he might have imagined, while any stylistic indebtness to German mid-romanticism is outweighed (as in the ensuing Second Violin Sonata) by the attractiveness of its content. Perhaps its time has again come, and it will also be interesting to see if there are (m)any takers for the arrangement of the 'Benedictus' from Beethoven's Missa solemnis that Busoni published in 1916 and which here receives its first recording. With the vocal lines translated into an orchestral 'prelude', this is by no means unsuccessful—yet Tully Potter's reticence in his otherwise insightful booklet note suggests that he, at least, is not convinced.

Although rarely encountered in the concert hall, Strauss's Violin Concerto (1882) has fared reasonably well on disc. Certainly the teenage composer was more in debt to his stylistic models than Busoni, yet the various inferences of Mendelssohn, Bruch and even Brahms (whose own concerto appeared only five years before) rarely become intrusive, while the formal evolution over three movements is secure if hardly revelatory. Potter is right to suggest that the initial 'Allegro' is distended by some all too dutiful technical bravura, though there is little to fault in the central 'Lento' with its mingled pathos and nobility—save that its relative brevity makes the playfulness of the final rondo seem just too much of a good thing, for all that the belated recall of the first movement's second theme is a winning ploy and effortlessly brought off.

That it is here is owing in no small measure to the advocacy of Tanja Becker-Bender, who respects the work's unassuming conservatism as keenly as she emphasises its proportionate attractions, while her account of the Busoni possesses a conviction which ought to win this piece new friends. Frank Peter Zimmermann's reading has slightly greater immediacy (and also a more apposite coupling in the Second Violin Sonata), whereas Sarah Chang brings a more self-consciously virtuoso manner to bear on the Strauss (itself appropriately coupled with the Violin Sonata from the brink of the composer's maturity). No-one wanting these concertos is likely to be disappointed, not least when the playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the direction of Garry Walker is as commited as one could wish for.