BUSONI: Music for 2 Pianos (Allan Schiller/ John Humphreys) (Naxos: 8.557443)
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Music for Two Pianos
Ferruccio Busoni was universally regarded as one of thelate-Romantic era's most remarkable piano virtuosi, andwas undoubtedly one of its most fascinating composers,even if the searching intellectualism of much of hismusic only slowly won it an audience. Despite a selfconsciousquest for compositional originality, Busonihad a keen awareness of the greatness of the Westernmusical tradition, and his engagement with the music ofBach not only produced some of the finest arrangementsof that composer's music for piano, but also stimulatedBusoni's own creative imagination in many other ways.
As a writer too, he was both thought-provoking andinfluential. Essays such as Sketch of a New Aesthetic ofMusic (1907) not only helped to define his own creativeapproach, but also laid down a philosophical challengeto his contemporaries. Given his penchant for verbalself-analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that thecontents of this disc of his works for two pianos wereeffectively suggested by the composer himself. All thepieces are based on works by Mozart or Bach, withvarying infusions of Busoni himself, ranging frommodest alterations in the former to the creation ofcompletely new compositions in the latter.
On finishing the arrangement of Mozart'ssurprisingly stern and weighty Fantasie f??r eineOrgelwalze, K.608, (Fantasy for a Barrel-Organ), in1922, Busoni recommended that it could be included asa specific part of a larger programme of his two-pianoworks. Although the Fantasy is effectively an overturein the Italian style, consisting of fast-slow-fast sections,Busoni believed that it should, along with thedeliciously sprightly finale of Mozart's Piano Concertoin F major, K.459, which he had already arranged fortwo pianos under the title Duettino Concertante, formthe central section of a larger and rather unorthodox'sonata'. The first movement of this sonata would be hisImprovisation on the Bach Chorale 'Wie wohl ist mir, oFreund der Seele', completed in 1916. This piece isbased upon a set of variations that Busoni had originallycomposed as the last movement of his second violinsonata in 1900. As he himself explained in a preface tothe work, it had long been his intention to arrange themovement for two pianos, but when he finally came tothe task his changed feelings about the music aftersixteen years, and the new possibilities and restrictionscreated by replacing the violin part with one for asecond piano resulted in a virtually independentcomposition, and one that reflected the increasing desirefor clarity in his compositional approach.
As the final movement of this notional sonata,Busoni proposed the two-piano version of hismagisterial Fantasia Contrappuntistica, no doubtthinking of the vast contrapuntal finale of Beethoven's'Hammerklavier' Sonata, Op.106. The FantasiaContrappuntistica is Busoni's most ambitious andhermetic piano work, and as a result tends to dwarf thepieces preceding it, despite its obvious connections withthe 'Improvisation' first movement, for it too is basedon Bach, and also originally appeared in another format.
Busoni had long been fascinated with Bach's last,unfinished, masterpiece The Art of Fugue, and in 1910,while sailing to America on board the steamer'Barbarossa', began a completion of the final,fragmentary fugue, which he eventually finished in NewOrleans, in the midst of an American concert-tour. Hisintention was not to imitate Bach's own style, but ratherto complete the piece using the technique ofsymmetrically invertible counterpoint developed by hisfriend the theorist Bernhard Ziehn. This allowed thecombination of contrapuntal lines without harmonicrestriction, and the resulting often dissonant sound isvery unlike Bach's carefully-crafted harmoniccontrapuntalidiom. The work, now titled Grosse Fuge,was printed in a limited edition of a hundred copies,with a frontispiece depicting a very un-Barbarossa-likegalleon with five sails enclosed within a decagon,Busoni's emblem for the form of the piece, whichpresented five contrapuntal subjects over ten sections.
Soon after finishing the fugue, however, thecomposer had the idea of lengthening it by including asa prelude a set of chorale variations on 'Allein Gott inder Hoh' sei Ehr'' ('Honour be to God alone on high'),and this extended version was published later in 1910 asFantasia Contrappuntistica, Edizione definitiva for solopiano. The form now comprised twelve sections:1. Chorale-Variations 2. Fuga I 3. Fuga II 4. Fuga III5. Intermezzo 6. Variatio I 7. Variatio II 8. Variatio III9. Cadenza 10. Fuga IV 11. Chorale 12. Stretta.
Two years later a slightly simplified reworking waspublished as an Edizione minore, also for solo piano, butincluding a new introduction, a revision of his thirdElegy for piano, based on the Chorale-Prelude 'MeineSeele bangt und hofft zu Dir' ('My soul fears and trustsin Thee').
Busoni was nevertheless still not finished with whathe had come to see as his masterwork for piano. Onpublishing his edition of Bach in 1920 he included boththe Edizione definitiva and Edizione minore of theFantasia Contrappuntistica, making the former evenmore definitive (or less, according to your point ofview) by revising the last two pages for pianisticreasons. The idea of making yet another version, thistime for two pianos, was also appealing ever morestrongly, as the composer had come to realise that theFantasia was 'a disproportionate task for ten fingers,whereas divided between twenty it would be easy andtransparent for player and listener alike'. In 1921 hebrought this idea to fruition, but what he produced,although based on the Edizione definitiva, and followingthe ground-plan detailed above, also representssomething of an amalgamation of the two editions, witha new introduction using both choral preludes, and anew pictorial frontispiece representing the form of thework, this time based not on a galleon, but on the westentrance of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon. Thisversion is indubitably the most satisfying and directlycomprehensible of all, even for the vast majority oflisteners who have no knowledge of the architecture ofPapal palaces, for the writing for two pianos producesan admirable lucidity and balance in the part-writingthat allows Busoni's cerebral, yet surprisingly thrilling,counterpoint to stand out in full relief.Dr Kenneth Hamilton