Tuesday 7 May 2019

A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo

Busoni: Piano Concerto - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra - Myrios
Ferruccio Busoni Piano Concerto; Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; Myrios Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 May 2019
Busoni's mammoth concerto in a striking new live recording from Boston

What does Busoni's music sound like? Despite his name being well known, Ferruccio Busoni is perhaps best known for his involvement in Bach's music than for his own music. It does not help that his mature works are relatively sparse, of his circa 300 original works, more than 200 of them were composed before he was aged 24 (when he won the Rubenstein Prize in Moscow with his Konzertstuck for piano and orchestra). And, of course, it does not help that such an iconic work as his Piano Concerto (which was premiered in Berlin 1904) is huge in conception, difficult for the pianist without the benefit of showy virtuosity and, for the last 10 minutes or so of its over 70 minute duration, requires the addition of a male voice chorus!

This new recording on Myrios Classics has the benefit of being taken from live performances by Kirill Gerstein with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Perhaps Busoni's problem is that he is so diverse, one of the last great virtuoso pianists in the 19th century mould, he taught, he composed, he arranged and edited a vast quantity of music. His piano of version of Bach's Chaconne is only the tip of the iceberg, and the pianist Ronald Stevenson (himself a great Busoni disciple) used to tell the story of Busoni's wife once being introduced as Mrs Bach-Busoni. Busoni's compositional output had to be fitted into his performing and teaching commitments.

Even his teaching does not really give us a focus on the man, there is hardly a Busoni school, you only have to look at the diversity of his students, his keyboard pupils included Percy Grainger, his composition students included Kurt Weill, Philipp Jarnach, Stefan Wolpe, and Edgar Varese!

Ferruccio Busoni in 1900
Ferruccio Busoni in 1900
As a composer he is remarkably Janus-like, elements of his style look forward to the developments of the 20th century (Arnold Schoenberg was only eight-years his junior), but Busoni also held onto aspects of traditional technique. He was attracted to new and different forms, wanted to break free from conventions, yet held onto others. Whilst his piano concerto is unconventional in many ways, it is built from the building blocks of past composers, the symphonic approach of Beethoven, the improvisatory feel of Mozart in the keyboard writing. The resulting work holds other dichotomies in balance, the combination of Italian lyricism and German thorough-counterpoint, the inclusion of Italian popular song and the influence of Wagner. Though their music is very different, there is something about the pull between Italian and German in Busoni that reminds me of Wolf-Ferrari whose life embodied similar dichotomies.

One of the problems with the concerto is that Busoni wrote a fearsome piano part, something that Busoni the pianist could take in his stride, but that for much of the time the piano is part of the symphonic texture and not showcased or spotlit, this is hardly a showy virtuoso concerto. The first movement, at first, seems to hint at Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but then it goes into more complex chromatic zones. There is also a restlessness to the writing, which seems to encompass the entire work. The second movement, Pezzo giocoso, is scherzo enough to allow Gerstein to display some dazzling fingerwork, but here and in the first movement there is a strenuousness about Gerstein's playing which seems to be part of his conception of the work.

The third movement, Pezzo serioso, is wonderfully dark and brooding and at both orchestra and soloist build up a wonderful head of steam, whilst the fourth movement Tarantella starts of as rather a lumbering dance but steadily becomes quite simply astonishing. The choral fifth movement sounds unlikely but makes complete sense in the context of the work, and the singing from the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is admirable.

Sakari Oramo keeps things moving, allowing the piece to flow and it certainly does not feel the nearly 72 minutes that the CD booklet says it is! Overall this is an impressive, and wonderfully engaging account of the large and problematic score. Despite being recorded live the orchestral playing is full of wonderful subtleties [you can read the review of the original live performances on BachTrack, in what was evidently the orchestra's first performance of the work]

The admirable booklet is full of striking images of Busoni as well as some of the composer's own drawing. There are two substantial essays, Albrech Riethmuller puts Busoni's career in context, whilst Larry Sitsky considers the Piano Concerto in detail.

If you already have the concerto, then it is probably worth listening to this disc as Oramo and Gerstein's approach seems to be quite distinctive, and overall the work is served wonderfully. If you don't have it in your library, then this disc will serve you admirably

Busoni: Piano Concerto - Kirill Gerstein, Sakari Oramoin, Boston Symphony Orchestra 10/3/17 (Photo Winslow Townson)
Busoni: Piano Concerto - Kirill Gerstein, Sakari Oramoin, Boston Symphony Orchestra 10/3/17
(Photo Winslow Townson)
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) - Piano Concerto
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Sakari Oramo (conductor)
Recorded live on 10-11 March 2017, Symphony Hall, Boston

Available from Amazon.

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