Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924) Ottorino Respighi(1879-1936)
Works for Cello and Piano
What are the elements in common between Ottorino Respighiand Ferruccio Busoni, apart from the fact that they are both Italian composerswho lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? At first onewould say that the differences between them are more numerous than thesimilarities; on closer examination of the two composers, however, it ispossible to see some points of contact. A cursory glance at their respectivebiographies reveals initially that both Respighi and Busoni had aninternational musical training that decisively influenced the future course oftheir careers. Respighi, in fact, studied in Bologna with Martucci, but also atSt Petersburg with Rimsky-Korsakov and in Berlin with Bruch; the Italian-GermanBusoni followed regular courses of instruction in Graz, but received advicefrom Boito in Bologna, from Rubinstein and Brahms in Vienna, from Reinecke inLeipzig and from other eminent composers who heard him as an infant prodigy ontour in Europe.
Both Respighi and Busoni fought for a revaluation of Italianmusic of the past and for the creation of a national school; as far as Respighiis concerned, his enthusiasm for the glorious Italian sixteenth and seventeenthcenturies is well known, shared also by other composers of the so-called'generation of the 80s', Pizzetti, Malipiero and Casella. Less well known isBusoni's passion for the masterpieces of early Italian polyphony: yet from his correspondencethere often emerge the names of Scarlatti, Marcello, Jommelli, scores of whosemusic he sought to have published. The practice of transcription was alsoshared by both composers: Respighi's works include a notable number ofarrangements of Tartini, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and others. As far as Busoni isconcerned, transcription was second nature to him and he transcribed not onlymusic by Bach but also works of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner,and even of his own music, of which there often exist different versions.
There remain, naturally, fundamentally different aestheticchoices: the musical language of Respighi remains always tied to the tonalsystem, with a strong tendency towards the revival of ancient Gregorian modes.His instrumental taste shows a debt to Rimsky-Korsakov, but also to Debussy andStrauss. Busoni's mature style, by contrast, goes beyond tonality, touchingfirst on the atonality of Schoenberg, then to find sublimation in 'newclassicism', as he himself defined the stylistic stage he reached in his finalyears. Busoni's use of the orchestra is certainly less attractive than that ofRespighi: here one can distinguish a German background, but treated in a verypersonal way. The works included in the present recording, nevertheless, goback to the early years of the two composers (with the exception of thetranscriptions by Busoni) and so can be heard side by side.
The present release starts with Respighi's Adagio convariazioni (1903-1910), written when he was very young and then transcribed forcello and orchestra. The theme of the Adagio is by Antonio Certani, a cellistfriend of Respighi in Bologna and the dedicatee of the work. In the formalstructure and the treatment of the string instrument there is a possible precedentin Bruch's Kol Nidrei of 1881; Respighi's work, moreover, anticipates certainmoods of Bloch's Schelomo (1915). This does not mean, naturally, that thethematic material used is derived from traditional national sources, but thatthe element common to the three works is rather that of a singing theme oftraditional pattern. It could, indeed, be interesting to study more deeply howthis singing instrumental quality of Respighi may be related to histranscriptions of the works of early Italian composers, already many in numberbefore the Adagio was composed.
While it is a mere hypothesis that the Adagio con variazionimay in some way have a debt to other music arranged by Respighi, theBach-Busoni Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue of 1917 is to all intents and purposesa transcription. For many concert-goers after the second world war Bach-Busoniconstitutes a kind of double-barrelled name, like Wolf-Ferrari orPick-Mangiagalli: the figure of Busoni came to be covered by the giant shadowof Bach, without too many problems. In this case we have a division into two ofa work written for keyboard that has to be played by two instruments; withoutgoing into too many technical details, it is extraordinary how Busoni preservesthe appearance of a grand solo improvisation in the Chromatic Fantasia, withscales, runs and recitatives for cello and piano. In the fugue the division oflabour is simpler: Busoni takes one of the three voices entrusted to thekeyboard by Bach and appropriates it for the string instrument.
The Kleine Suite, Opus 23 (1885-86) is not a transcription,but, like the greater part of the compositions of Busoni in his twenties, paysits debt to the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach. It is, in fact, a kind ofidealised reconstruction of a Bach suite, with some concessions towardsinstrumental idioms of late romanticism. It opens with a Moderato ma energicothat is a true Corrente, with a relatively dense contrapuntal dialogue betweenthe instruments; this is followed by an Andantino, con grazia that takes theplace of an Aria. The succeeding Massig, doch frisch recalls movements ofBach's Partitas with the titles of Capriccio, or Scherzo, or Rondo, while theSostenuto ed espressivo is to all intents and purposes a Sarabande. The finalModerato ma con brio to some extent moves away from the model and offerswriting suggesting Schumann.
Dated some years earlier, the Serenata, Opus 34 (1883) isactually a transcription of the last movement of the Suite, Opus 10 (1878) forclarinet. Comparison between the first and second versions of the work isilluminating in its revelation of the growing maturity of a boy between theages of twelve and seventeen, although Busoni is more familiar with theclarinet, of which his father was a recognised virtuoso, than with the cello.The writing for the cello is more extended and more careful, but also it ismuch freer and more personal in its harmony and in its thematic development;the ternary form is treated with authority and the return of the centralelement in a coda gives unity to the whole piece.
Five years later Busoni turned again to the cello, writing aseries of ten short variations on a Finnish folk-song, Kultaselle (1878). Hehad already made use of Finnish folk-music in his piano duet FinnlandischeVolksweisen, Opus 27 (1889). Kultaselle is more developed both from the pointof view of harmony and in concertante writing: Busoni, who was neverthelessvery critical of his own youthful compositions, kept it in his repertoire andin his final years thought even of preparing a new version. Perhaps hetreasured these variations because they recalled the period he had spent inHelsinki, when he had met his wife; or perhaps he found that it was his bestcontribution to cello repertoire, beside, of course, the transcriptions.
The present release ends with another transcription, in thiscase of a late work of Liszt, the Valse oubliee that Busoni split between thetwo instruments in the same year of 1917 in which he had made a similararrangement of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. Here too we meet a surprisingresult that modifies the timbre of Liszt's chords, immersing the whole piece inan atmosphere that seems to prefigure early Bartok. In particular, thethree-string pizzicati of the cello and the exploitation of the upper registerin the ending shifts the sonority of this waltz, already very advancedharmonically in Liszt's version,