BUSONI: An die Jugend / Fantasia Contrappuntistica (John Taylor/ Wolf Harden) (Naxos: 8.555034)
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Piano Music, Vol. 1
Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, in 1866, the only child of musical parents. His father was a virtuoso clarinetist, while his mother, who came from Trieste, was a pianist of German ancestry. Busoni remained deeply grateful to his father for insisting on a study of the music of Bach, then underrated in Italy, and of German repertoire. In 1874 he made his first concert appearance in Trieste, playing works by Handel, Hummel and Schumann. In the autumn of 1875 he went with his father to Vienna, where he soon made an impression by his ability as a pianist, composer and improviser and was able to benefit from the rich cultural life that the city offered. Here he heard and himself played to Liszt, met Brahms and Anton Rubinstein and enjoyed the friendship of Karl Goldmark. It was on the advice of Brahms that Busoni moved in 1886 to Berlin to benefit from the teaching of Carl Reinecke, and from there he moved for a time to Helsinki Conservatory, where he influenced a new generation of Finnish composers. In Moscow he was offered a position at the Conservatory, but chose rather to continue his career as a pianist, with concert-?¡tours to America and elsewhere. In 1894 he settled in Berlin, his home, except for a period in Switzerland during the war, until his death in 1924. He did much to promote the music of Liszt and to encourage, in concerts that he conducted, contemporary music. In his own performances as a pianist he won wide popularity with audiences. As a composer he was versatile, turning in particular to opera in his later years, yet here, as in much of his other music, he remained a unique, remarkable and isolated figure, combining in his work elements of Italian sensibility with a predominantly German leaning towards counterpoint and harmonic experiment that was not widely acceptable. His transcriptions, of Bach in particular, followed the tradition of Liszt, a re-creation of the music on which they were based, with a freedom of interpretation that is only now, once again, reaching audiences.
Ferruccio Busoni was one of the most forward-looking composer-pianists there has ever been and music for his own instrument makes up a great deal of his work. Bach was a pervasive presence from the beginning, both in the contrapuntal aspect of Busoni's music, and in his repertoire as a performer; a process of assimilation culminating in the Bach-Busoni Edition, published in 1918. While his later Bach work is creative interpretation rather than arrangement, strength of personality is inherent in his earliest transcriptions.
In Busoni's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565, made in 1900, the rhetorical nature of the Toccata, notably its imperious octave passagework, is ideally transferred to the piano medium. The Fugue proceeds at a moderate tempo, Busoni separating out the lines within the texture, employing the sustaining pedal to emphasize Bach's pedal-points and promote a cumulative sense of continuity, decisively clinched in the heavy closing cadential chords.
Busoni's Prelude and Fugue in C minor is an early work, very much in the style of Bach, with a rather less Bachian Prelude, followed by a fugue with a short and very convincing subject, a reflection of Busoni's early understanding of the musical idiom of Bach, a continuing influence in the following years.
Only with the cycle of Elegies, completed in 1908, did Busoni consider that he had reached his mature idiom. This was the period of his Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music, a then-controversial manifesto for the continuing development of musical creativity in a future of unlimited possibility, a future to be achieved not by disowning the past but by rendering its essential qualities anew, as a catalyst to composition in the present. No other work of Busoni's better illustrates this conviction than An die Jugend, composed between June and August 1909. Here transcription and composition merge in a synthesis of past and present, with a series of four works dedicated to the young, who will continue this process in the future. In Volume 1: Preludietto. Fughetta ed Esercizio the gentle, undulating motion of the Preludietto suggests the combination of the na?»ve and the visionary which will pervade the whole cycle. The Fughetta brings a haunting chromatic instability to its fugal material, while the Esercizio makes free play of the contradiction between a classical A major in the left-?¡hand and a whole-tone Impressionism in the right hand. Volume 2: Preludio, Fuga e Fuga figurata starts out as a transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in D major from Book One of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. The alternation between them is an especially felicitous touch, while the Fuga figurata combines the music of the Prelude with the subject of the Fugue in a dazzling contrapuntal display. Volume 3: Giga, Bolero e Variazione offers a Giga that is a free transcription of Mozart's Eine kleine Gigue, K.574, followed by a rhythmic transformation of the Fandango from Act III of Le nozze di Figaro. The Variazione returns to the Gigue in a brilliant opening out of its tonal and rhythmic potential, Mozart remade for today. Volume 4: Introduzione e Capriccio (Paganinesco); Epilogo brings a slow Introduzione for the left hand that draws its thematic substance from Paganini's Violin Caprice No. 11 in C major. A more expressive central section draws on Caprice No. 15 in E minor, before the initial theme returns heroically in E major. The whole piece is a brilliant study in Lisztian piano virtuosity, whereas the Epilogo is a profound meditation on some 250 years of musical history. In barely four minutes, Busoni journeys from a scale of E flat minor, by way of a whole-tone scale, to a chordal sequence which has the effect of atonality. The Fughetta theme from Volume 1 reappears in varied settings, before the piece closes with a simple C major cadence. The development from Classical Tonality, through Free Tonality, to New Tonality may be taken as the argument of this visionary work, a statement of the composer's future intent.
In 1909, Busoni was working on a critical edition of Bach's final The Art of Fugue, and became fascinated with the last quadruple fugue (Contrapunctus XIV), which Bach broke off at the entry of the fourth subject only days before his death. In Chicago early in 1910, Busoni renewed acquaintance with the composer and theorist Bernhard Ziehn, whose theories for a new approach to polyphony, in which the symmetrical treatment of melodic lines gave rise to a wealth of new harmonies, gave Busoni the impetus to realise Bach's unfinished fugue, which he completed in March as Grosse Fuge. A revised and extended version appeared in June as Fantasia Contrappuntistica. This Edizione definitiva opens with variations on Bach's chorale Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, a shortened version of the third of Busoni's Elegies. This somber and harmonically amorphous piece, with its Bachian roots and Lisztian textures, allows Busoni to place himself in a historical continuum, focused on the future. Fragments from the first subject of Bach's unfinished fugue join with inversions of the B-A-C-H (E flat - A-?¡C-E natural) motif, and Fuga I is launched, an arch?¡-shape