Ciccolini, Orvieto & Rappetti Play Busoni

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BUSONI: Fantasia contrappuntisca.1,2 Preludio e Fuga in C min.2,3 Capriccio in G min.2,3 Duetto concert ante after the Finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19.2,3  SCHUMANN-BUSONI: Introduction & Concert Allegro.2,3  MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: Overture (arr. Busoni) 2,3  / 1Aldo Ciccolini, 2Aldo Orvieto, 3Marco Rappetti, pno / Naxos 8.574086

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by and suspicious of Ferruccio Busoni as both a composer and as an interpreter of others’ works, particularly those of Bach. His composing style, though reflecting a good understanding of musical principles, has for the most part struck me as turgid and bombastic, neither in a good way, and his surviving piano recordings show a Romantic approach to Baroque works that just doesn’t fit. He greatly admired conductor Arturo Toscanini but the admiration wasn’t entirely mutual; the great conductor programmed but two of his shorter works, the Berceuse Élégiaque and the Rondo Arlecchinesco, which he performed several times, but nothing else, and he described Busoni as an odd man who seemed to purposely distort music in some of his concerts to get a rise out of his audiences.

This CD combines a recording made in March 2000 of his Fantasia contrappuntisca by first pianist Aldo Orvieto and second pianist Aldo Ciccolini that appears not to have been previously released along with the other pieces, played by Marco Rapetti (piano I) and Orvieto (piano II) recorded in July 2019. The Busoni Preludio e fuga and Capriccio as well as the Schumann-Busoni Introduction & Concert Allegro are first recordings.

I found myself enthralled by the Fantasia; this is a work that, at least in this very clean and unmannered performance, relies on the principles of Bach and extends them into a 32-minute work of great invention and interest…you might say an Italo-German counterpart to the long, involved pieces that Kaikhosru Sorabji was soon to write. Everything in this piece is tightly written and brilliantly conceived, the minor-key theme sometimes played by the right hand of one of the pianists alone, sometimes with two single-note lines going on together as counterpoint, and at other times as a succession of chords. Having two pianists involved gave Busoni a lot of leeway in writing counter-voices, and halfway through the third section of the work (“Fuga”), he changes keys audaciously, something that J.C. Bach only did on rare occasions and in short passages. The performance is also excellent; the only reason I can see as to why it was never previously released was because no one seemed interested in having Orvieto and Ciccolini return to the studio to record other Busoni works for two pianos before the latter’s death in 2015.

One difference between Busoni’s and Sorabji’s working methods, it seems to me, is that the former placed limits on how far he would go in extending his pieces. Aside from his mammoth Piano Concerto, which I’ve never liked, Busoni tended to be more terse in his musical statements and variations on same whereas Sorabji, an amateur pianist who only played his own works occasionally in public, was more than happy to bowl over his listeners with the sheer magnitude of his invention. In the fourth-section fugue, Busoni builds up a tremendously complex variant to a great climax, resolves it, and then moves on to an almost bitonal “Intermezzo.” In a similar place, Sorabji would have continued to build on that fugue for another 12 or 15 minutes before letting go of it, and his Intermezzo would surely have been eight or 10 minutes long instead of just 1:09.

Yet as one listens to this piece, the sheer invention of it really awes you. Busoni seemed to find in this work an incredibly rich series of harmonic as well as melodic sequences and variants, and his frequent excursions into bitonality and his ability to use pivot notes inside the chords to shift key at a second’s notice keeps your ears glued to the speakers, wondering what he will do next. Yet by the time we reach Fuga IV (track 10 of 12), we sense from the strict march rhythm and almost inexorable push forward that Busoni is reaching the climax of his work. Although divided into three sections—Fuga IV, Chorale and Stretta—this entire final section comprises only a total of five minutes, and unless you are watching for the change in track numbers it sounds all of a piece. Interestingly, Orvieto and Ciccolini suddenly increase the tempo in the final Stretta, but since I have the highest regard for Ciccolini as a musician I have to believe that this is in the score.

Busoni’s arrangement of the Schumann Introduction & Concert Allegro is really just an arrangement for the second piano of the orchestral score; the first piano plays Schumann’s original music. It’s nice but superfluous, as most transcriptions of orchestral works are. (I also have zero interest in Liszt’s arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies for the piano.) The same goes for his 2-piano arrangement of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte overture that closes this disc. Who cares? A waste of his time to have written it and a waste of your time listening to it.

The Preludio e Fuga in C minor is built on a single musical idea. The prelude sounds very much like Bach, but the fugue uses very audacious chromatic movement far beyond anything Bach or Liszt would normally have done. I found it to be a very interesting piece, and was stunned to discover that he wrote this piece when he was only 12 years old. The equally early Capriccio in G minor, written a year later, is even more interesting: Busoni channels Bach in the slow opening introduction but, once into the caprice, uses a running figure in both hands, sometimes independently of one another but often together (though sometimes running in opposite directions) as the two pianos play a very long and sophisticated “chase chorus” with each other. At the 2:08 mark in the second section, the fast tempo suddenly relaxes and we get almost a fantasia-like piece. This, too, was for me a fascinating and absorbing work, and it is played flawlessly by the two Italian pianists.

Busoni wrote the Duettino Concertante after the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 for a concert in England “to keep myself busy,” but ended up very proud of it. Busoni believed that Mozart’s original score was “full of unworked passages, clearly written in great haste, harmless but brilliant. And I believe it has now acquired even greater splendor.” It actually must have been quite a challenge for this modernist composer, reared heavily in the German classical tradition, to move his musical mind back in time nearly 150 years to a style that was foreign to him (he had earlier said that it would be a mistake to try to transcribe the works of Mozart and Haydn, since they belonged to a style different from his and complete in itself). It’s a very ingenious piece, however, and for the most part I liked it.

Thus we have here an excellent album of mostly excellent works by Busoni, a worthy entry in that composer’s discography.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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