Neeme Järvi’s Busoni Set Reissued

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BUSONI: Orchestral Suite No. 2. Berceuse Élégiaque. Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra.* 2 Sketches from Doktor Faust: Sarabande & Cortège. Tanzwalzer. Lustspiel Overture. Indianische Fantasie.+ Gesang vom Reigen der Geister. Die Brautwahl / *John Bradbury, clarinetist; +Nelson Goerner, pianist; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos CHAN 241-57

Ferruccio Busoni was an odd composer: so odd, in fact, that his music was seldom popular in concert halls during his lifetime and, in fact, lay largely neglected until the late 1960s when pianist John Ogden suddenly recorded his massive Piano Concerto. That concerto, like his opera Doktor Faust, was pretty much a meandering mess, but of course Academia jumped all over them and told us how ignorant we were for not recognizing their genius.

But in time, concert audiences got to hear Busoni’s other music, mostly suites and concertinos written in brief movements. Here, the composer’s deep knowledge of Baroque and Classical structure did him great service, and he was able to produce some excellent pieces of lasting value. Arturo Toscanini regularly performed only two of these works, the Berceuse Élégiaque and the Rondo Arlecchinesco, but on these two CDs, recorded by Neeme Järvi in 2001 and 2004 respectively, we have all but the Rondo to represent the very best of this phlegmatic conductor’s output. Moreover, these are performances of almost fearsome intensity and etraordinary clarity. hallmarks of Pop Järvi’s conducting style since he first appeared on records some 35 years ago.

In the Orchestral Suite No. 2, we hear some of Busoni’s influences coming forth, particularly Berlioz; he throws in quotes from the French composer’s Symphonie Fantastique and his arrangement of the Rakoczy March, and later on music that sounded for all the world like something of Prokofiev’s…except that Busoni wrote it between 1895 and 1902! This means that only was he not influenced by Prokofiev, but also that he wasn’t influenced by Scriabin, who was at that time still working towards his mature style. At another point, I heard a passage played by the clarinets that seemed borrowed from the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (completed in 1896). Busoni certainly had “big ears,” as they say.

Järvi’s performance of the Berceuse is absolutely marvelous, bringing out the sensuousness and delicacy of the music with great felicity. I found his performance of the Concertino for clarinet greatly improved the quality of the music with his sprightly approach, which often disguised the works’s weaknesses (particularly the slow, meandering second movement, which goes in one ear and out the other). Clarinetist John Bradbury also plays very well on it. Järvi’s performances of the sketches from Doktor Faust, the “Sarabande” and “Cortège,” are quite different from those of Michael Gielen. Järvi is fairly strict in tempo but, although bringing out some of its color and vigor, not quite as penetrating, but the performances are certainly valid in their own right. The music itself, like most of Doktor Faust, has some interest in the counterpoint but is often meandering.

The Tanzwalzer, also light music, are very interesting for the way Busoni plays with orchestral color and rhythm. It almost comes across as a developing, organic composition than a suite, particularly in this performance. The Comedy Overture lives up to its title, with sprightly, playful music, bustling and happy form start to finish, yet has enough harmonic interest in it to keep up one’s interest. It would certainly not be a favorite on your local classical radio station! The curious thing about Busoni is that he sounds both German and Italian at the same time: German, and sometimes Russian, in his melodic contours, but then suddenly Italian in the very next phrase.

Perhaps the most interesting piece on either disc is the rarely-heard Indian Fantasy, completed in 1914. Although it premiered in Berlin in March 1914 and was played again (with the composer at the piano) with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski the next year, the piece has never caught on. This is a shame, as the music uses genuine American Indian themes (particularly the one at 10:40) and is a tightly-knit structure in the form of a one-movement piano concerto. Although the solo piano part is occasionally splashy for the sake of impressing listeners, most of the time it is interesting and dovetails nicely with the orchestral score, which is far less Germanic-sounding than much of Busoni’s output. Pianist Nelson Goerner strikes me as riding the surface of the music and not being terribly imaginative in his performance, but his technique is dazzling and the score itself has numerous features of interest. This one is well worth reviving!

By contrast with the essentially flashy Indian Fantasy, the Indian Diary, Book II is mysterious and reflective, without a piano soloist. Busoni called it a “chorale prelude” and thought of it as an orchestral elegy along with the Berceuse Élégiaque. Järvi plays it with a nice sense of feeling, albeit a tad fast for the mood of the piece.

The suite from Busoni’s first opera, the failed Die Brautwahl or The Bridal Choice, is as great as anything he wrote. The music is enormously complex in both rhythms and thematic material, surely too much for the average opera-goer to absorb in one evening (or, even, in one week), but it’s also quite lively and ingeniously scored, particularly in the winds. The liner notes tell us that Busoni did not just extract a series of set-pieces from the opera, but rather assembled episodes that portrayed specific moods and “wove those together to make a whole movement of that character, though the various sections may come from diverse parts of the opera.” In many ways, I think, this is Busoni’s masterpiece. a great work that is both emotionally appealing and musically complex. The third section, titled “Mystiches stück,” is as remarkable and creative a piece of music as I have ever heard, and Järvi’s conducting of it is just perfect in mood. Let me be clear: this music is too good for an operatic audience, particularly one of 1913. No tunes? No high notes? No ballet? We’re out of here!

All in all, then, a really fine album of mostly very fine music. As a 2 for 1 deal, this is a no-brainer.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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