BUSONI Piano Concerto (Gerstein)
Busoni’s mighty Piano Concerto responds well to live recordings – just think of Donohoe and Elder at the Proms back in 1988 (EMI, 1/91 – nla). Or there’s the 1966 live broadcast featuring Pietro Scarpini and Rafael Kubelík (First Hand, A/18), of which Rob Cowan thought highly, though which I’ve not yet managed to hear. So I had high hopes of this new account with Kirill Gerstein and the Boston SO under Sakari Oramo, caught live in March 2017, for this is my own Desert Island piano concerto.
The opening orchestral tutti is always a crucial indicator of a conductor’s conception of the piece. Oramo keeps things moving, perhaps slightly underplaying the gravitas that Elder finds for both Donohoe and Hamelin. When the pianist takes over the dotted chordal theme from the orchestra (track 1, 3'40") Gerstein is a touch more effortful than Hamelin, though one of the pleasures of the new account is the characterful wind-playing. That said, the duetting with the oboe (9'33") doesn’t quite have the ravishing finesse of Hamelin and his CBSO colleagues. Gerstein and Oramo are, though, impressive in their focus throughout the work’s opening movement, and the whirl forwards towards its close has a tremendous power to it.
The second movement is marked giocoso, a quality that Hamelin, with his outlandish combination of fast fingers and still faster brain, conveys more easily than Gerstein, Elder alive to his every move. The effect in the new recording is less playful, though choice will come down to your personal perception of the piece. Interestingly, Dohonoe and Elder are a touch slower here yet still vibrantly convey a playful edginess. In the Tarantella fourth movement too, Gerstein has great clarity and the finesse of the ensemble with orchestra is remarkable (especially when you consider this is live). Again, Oramo coaxes a great array of subtle colouring from the Boston SO. By comparison, Ogdon’s 1967 recording now sounds a little cautious in this Tarantella, though that is down to the conductor more than the pianist, and this remains a seminal recording.
Between the two faster movements comes the epic slow movement. Both Oramo and Elder imbue it with gravitas; but whereas Elder is almost Wagnerian in the way the theme – on violas, clarinet and bassoon – emerges, Oramo gives it a more churning sense of energy. Hamelin enters with a compelling inwardness, whereas Gerstein allows himself more sense of freedom, almost seeming to be improvising at the keyboard.
But while the slow movement is the work’s beating heart, the finale is the one to which all is leading, not just literally but metaphorically too, emphasising the fact that Busoni was writing not a piano concerto but a symphony with piano. Again, comparison with Hamelin is telling. He is more subtle in the accompanying arpeggios, which are better integrated into the texture than Gerstein’s. But as the movement progresses, Oramo reveals subtleties in Busoni’s scoring that I’d never heard before. In both recordings the moment where the men’s voices creep in, singing the text by the Danish Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger, has the sense of arrival, coupled with sublime beauty, that is crucial, the oboe offering a plangent commentary, bewitchingly answered by flute. I always think the closing minutes of the concerto need to sound both majestic and exultant, but never showy. In this respect, Elder and Hamelin add a degree more solemnity into the mix. But, that said, this new account from Gerstein and Oramo is impressive, and anyone who loves the Busoni Concerto will want to add this to their shelves.