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Will the Revival Take Hold This Time?

Review: New recordings of Ferruccio Busoni's works could power a more lasting rediscovery of the composer.

March 05, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

During the first quarter of the 20th century, Ferruccio Busoni was a star. As a pianist, he was considered Liszt's successor; and the transcendental nature of the piano music he composed makes that not an immoderate claim. His music was heard and admired. He wrote the century's most ambitious and impressive piano concerto; he wrote one of the greatest of all 20th century pieces of contrapuntal piano music, the "Fantasia Contrappuntistica"; he wrote one of the most important 20th century German operas, "Doktor Faust." His ideas about music were both visionary and pragmatic, and they attracted considerable attention and debate.

Busoni was by all accounts a fascinating man who dabbled in occult thought, science, philosophy and architecture. He knew Liszt and Tchaikovsky; he hobnobbed with Shaw, Rilke, Schoenberg and Mahler. He was poet, theorist and visual artist as well as composer and pianist. He was a famed educator, mentor of Kurt Weill and Edgard Varese. His influence has been pervasive in 20th century music, even reaching as far as the American avant-garde--John Cage, David Tudor and Morton Feldman all studied with Busoni pupils or associates. John Adams is Busoni-besotted; he has made arrangements of Busoni's music and based the slow movement of his recent symphonic masterpiece, "Naive and Sentimental Music," on a Busoni berceuse, or lullaby.

Yet Busoni is best remembered now for his Bach transcriptions. That situation almost changed in the 1960s, when there was a concerted effort at a Busoni revival, and it looked, for a brief minute, as though he might catch on with the public the way Mahler, Ives and Satie were then catching on. Extraordinary British pianist John Ogden made important recordings of the concerto and "Fantasia," and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an extraordinary Faust in the opera's first recording. Still, these were not persuasive enough; Busoni didn't take.

Now, however, 76 years after his death and with little fanfare, a Busoni rediscovery is happening again, this time by some of the biggest names in the business. Suddenly and simultaneously, we have truly great recordings of Busoni's three greatest works. And with them, the best case yet for Busoni has been made.

The Piano Concerto is the place to begin. Premiered in 1904, it was the culmination of Busoni's early music. It is the Romantic piano concerto to end all Romantic piano concertos. It lasts an unprecedented 75 minutes and requires not just a huge orchestra but also, in the last movement, a male chorus. The size and scope of a Mahler symphony, it is a wild, epic ride.

Everything about this concerto is extravagant, from its long-lined lyric melodies to its climaxes that crush everything in sight. An Italian who settled in Germany at a young age and spent his adult life in Berlin, Busoni loved his native music, and the scherzo is an over-the-top tarantella that turns into a dance of mass frenzy; the nearly half-hour slow movement eagerly dives into spiritual depths. The piano solo is an astonishing bravura marathon.

There have been convincing recordings of the concerto (John Ogden's pioneering one has just been reissued as part of the Philips great pianist series), but nothing to match the new disc by Marc-Andre Hamelin. The pianist has a glittering technique that simply stuns, and Mark Elder conducts with dramatic inspiration--the recorded sound is as grandiose as the music, which combines with the spectacular performance to knock an audiophile's socks off.

"Fantasia Contrappuntistica" represents the high point of another phase in Busoni's career, the creation of elaborate but spring-water-clear abstract contrapuntal music. The starting point here is the incomplete final quadruple fugue of Bach's "Art of the Fugue." Busoni finishes it but also does much, much more in a massive series of fugues and variations. It was written in 1910 in several slightly different versions for one piano (one of them created for Los Angeles' Richard Buhling) and later, in 1921, revised in its final, most extravagant and compelling form, for two pianos.

The later version is the one Andras Schiff and Peter Serkin chose to play in a performance of rapt concentration and lucidity, as part of a two-disc set that also features stellar performances of two-piano works by Mozart and Reger.

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