Daniel Foley
The Whole Note, Canada
February 2014

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has recorded some 50 albums on the Hyperion label of generally unfamiliar and often extremely virtuosic repertoire to great critical acclaim. His recent release of three CDs devoted to the late piano music of Ferruccio Busoni represents another milestone in an outstanding career.

The repertoire covers the last 15 years of Busoni’s life and includes a number of pieces which self-reference his lesser-known orchestral works. CD 1 opens with the pivotal collection of seven Elegies composed in 1907. According to the composer, 'My entire personal vision I put down at last and for the first time in the Elegies'. These works reveal a tonal expansion of his earlier, more facile and traditional approach. The title is misleading, as these works are far from funereal. As might be expected from the only child of an Italian father and German mother, both of them professional musicians, Busoni’s style is cosmopolitan in the extreme, freely mixing influences ranging from an exuberant Italianate Tarantella (later incorporated into his massive Piano Concerto, recorded by Hamelin in 1999 in a staggering performance) to variations on the well-known English folk song Greensleeves (strangely, Busoni had been led to believe this melody was of Chinese origin and had used it as such in his opera based on Gozzi’s play Turandot).

CD2 is largely devoted to Busoni’s six Sonatinas, again of exceptional emotional range, from the inward-looking Sonatina seconda (containing thematic references to his opera Doktor Faust) to the sixth, overtly Lisztian, Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen that concludes the cycle. One even finds an intriguing example of 'World Music'. Busoni had toured the United States repeatedly in the early 20th century and while resident there took a keen interest in the Native American music which had been brought to his attention by Natalie Curtis, a former piano student of his who gifted him a copy of her massive 1907 volume of pioneering ethnomusicological transcriptions, The Indians’ Book. Busoni responded with a handful of Indian-inspired works including his Indian Diary in which short motifs from her collection appear as thematic springboards for his kaleidoscopic inventions.

Many of the pieces included on CD3 have a pedagogical purpose. Opening with a fabulously fleeting performance of the demanding Toccata of 1920, the bulk of the disc is devoted to a generous sampling from his late Klavierübung volumes which explore technical issues involving trills, staccato passages and polyphony as well as an intriguing set of variations on Chopin’s familiar Prelude in C Minor. These three discs contain a number of pieces not previously recorded and also include a sampling of the numerous Bach arrangements Busoni is best known for. The programming is exemplary, the sound is alluring (from a Steinway piano recorded in London’s Henry Wood Hall) and the program notes are excellent. Bravo Hamelin!