BUSONI: Variations and Fugue on Chopin's Prelude in C minor (John Taylor/ Wolf Harden) (Naxos: 8.555699)
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Busoni Volume 2.
Bach-Busoni: Chaconne in D minor, B33
Busoni: Etude en forme de variations, K206
Anhang zu Siegfried Och's 'Kommt ein Vogel geflogen', K222
Tema con variazioni in C, K6
Inno Variato, K16
Variationen und Fuge in freier Form über Fr. Chopin's
c-moll Präludium, K213
Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, in 1866, the only child of an Italian clarinettist father and a pianist mother of German paternal ancestry. He made his début as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, going to Vienna for study and performance the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885, studying with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performance occupied much of his attention until the turn of the new century, when composition began to assume a new importance, though never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period in Zurich during the First World War, he lived in Berlin from 1894 until his death.
The essence of Busoni's music lies in its synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry, emotion and intellect, the imaginative and the rigorous. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past which has only gained wider currency in recent decades.
As the most forward-looking composer-pianist there has yet been, Busoni wrote music particularly for his own instrument, the largest part of his output. Bach was a pervasive presence from the beginning, both in the contrapuntal aspect of his music, and in his repertoire as a performer, a process of assimilation culminating in the Bach-Busoni Edition, published in 1918. While Busoni's later Bach work is more creative interpretation than arrangement, strength of personality is inherent in his earliest transcriptions.
Technically and aesthetically, Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne in D minor, from the Solo Violin Partita No.2, BWV 1004, though relatively early, remains among his most formidable. Arranged in Boston in 1892, while on his first tour of the United States, it conveys the linear clarity of the original work through elaborate piano textures derived from Brahms and Liszt. At the same time, the dynamic terracing of the music's variational stages gives it a cumulative momentum, which anticipates several of the Bach-inspired works from Busoni's maturity.
1883 was a decisive year for Busoni. Arriving in Vienna at the beginning of a two-year stay, he made the acquaintance of Brahms, whose influence turned his composition from the emulation of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic models, towards an idiom of the present. The immediate result of this reorientation were the Six Etudes, published the following year as Opus 16. The existence of four other substantial etudes, however, indicates that Busoni intended to extend the series, possibly into a cycle of 24. Of these, only the Etude en forme de variations was published, again in 1884, as Opus 17. The piece continues the elaborate piano style of the earlier studies, with organ-like chords for the left hand contrasting with intricate contrapuntal writing for the right hand. The studious, slightly melancholic theme is succeeded by eight variations, ranging from the grotestque to the elegiac in the sixth variation and an incisive Bachian finale.
After Vienna, Busoni spent two years in Leipzig, where he met composers such as Delius, Grieg and Mahler. His first published Bach transcriptions date from this time, as does a novelty item, which sheds light on the more irreverent side of his nature. Some years before, the chorus-master Siegfried Ochs had attracted attention with his skit A German Folksong, 'Kommt ein Vogel geflogen', humorously arranged for piano in the style of older and more modern masters\. Busoni responded with his Five Variations on Kommt ein Vogel geflogen, in the style of famous masters, as an appendix to the variations by Siegfried Ochs. The amiable children's tune is followed by parodies of the idioms of, respectively, Schumann ('after Kinderszenen'), Mendelssohn, Chopin ('Mazurka'), Wagner ('Nibelungen') and Scarlatti. Witty and concise, this engaging piece was not published until 1987, 101 years after its composition.
The following two pieces come from near the beginning of Busoni's juvenilia. The Theme and Variations in C major, from October 1873, are Opus 6 in the seven-year-old composer's work-list. The winsome theme, in the left hand with the tripping accompaniment in the right, is followed by two variations, the second transposed down an octave for its second-half repeat, and a vibrant finale which recalls Beethoven's early sets of variations.
The Immo Variations, from November 1874, are designated Opus 12 in the same work-list. The three variations, played without repeats though with the last one extended to form a brief coda, are more elaborate pianistically than the previous set, while preserving the limpid Schubertian quality of the initial theme.
There could be no greater contrast than with the Variations and Fugue in Free Form on Chopin's Prelude in C minor, composed in Vienna during 1884-5, and published as Opus 22. At barely nineteen, Busoni produced a set of variations which sums up the possibilities of bravura pianism, a Romantic complement, perhaps, to the more classical virtuosity of Handel Variations of Brahms of two decades earlier. Busoni himself came to see the work as reckless and excessive and in 1922, for inclusion in his Klavierübung (1918-22, with a second edition published in 1925), produced a drastically compressed and rewritten version, in accordance with his mature aesthetic. The present recording, however, is of the original version in all its transcendental brilliance.
The Chopin Prelude in question is the visionary No.20 from the set of 24 Preludes, Op.28, with its striking diminuendo from forte to piano. The first variation builds steadily over a step-wise accompaniment, the second is more capricious, while the third offsets the theme with sombre passage-work in the bass. The fourth variation is a robust Bachian study, balanced by the pathos of the fifth, and the sixth moves into a realm of veiled introspection, perhaps the most overtly Chopinesque of the set, contrasting with the incisive seventh version of the material. The contrapuntal dexterity of Bach's Goldberg Variations is recalled in the eighth variation, before the ninth muses over aspects of the theme in an improvisational spirit. The tenth probes the theme under rapid semiquaver figuration, while the harmonically ambivalent eleventh variation inhabits a Lisztian domain.
The twelfth variation brings a ruminative lyricism, which the thirteenth counters in boisterous good humour. The fourteenth is among the most poetic, the fifteenth among the most ascetic of the sequence and the sixteenth breaks the tension with its charging passage-work, before the nocturnal calm of the seventeenth. The eighteenth of the set intensifies this mood in sparer piano writing, after which the nineteenth variation provides a rhetorical flourish before the culminating fugue. Over a running semiquaver accompaniment, this deploys the gamut of fugal devices, before the work concludes with a massive chordal transformation of the final phrase of Chopin's theme.