BUSONI Piano Concerto (Scarpini)
Although I’d hesitate to place Pietro Scarpini and Rafael Kubelík ahead of Marc-André Hamelin and Mark Elder as a top CD contender for this concerto monolith, I’d definitely cite it as a significant alternative view. When judged from a purely pianistic viewpoint, Hamelin’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing, as you can confirm for yourself by comparing the two pianists at the start of the Pezzo giocoso second movement, where Hamelin’s fleet-fingered wizardry dazzles the ear, while Scarpini, at a slower pace, sounds more effortful. Although not note-perfect, any minor shortcomings are outweighed by the performance’s many musical virtues. For a start, there’s the obvious rapport between Scarpini, of whom Alfred Cortot thought so highly, and Kubelík, who perhaps because the live broadcast dates from 1966 (Busoni’s centenary year) helps imbue the performance with a special sense of occasion.
Kubelík’s great strength is his acknowledgement of the light and shade in Busoni’s orchestration, the outset sounding truly sounding dolce e solenne. By contrast, John Ogdon’s rostrum accomplice Daniell Revenaugh (conducting the Royal Philharmonic) conjures a more Straussian canvas, while Elder is imposing but marginally less willing to play the delicacy card (an option he also takes with Peter Donohoe – EMI, 1/91 – nla). Scarpini’s first entry includes significant spots of chordal de synchronisation, his bell-like tone (ie near the start of Altera pars: Sommessamente) drawing the top line away from its accompaniment, much as Cortot might have done in Chopin or Schumann. Both Scarpini and Kubelík forage among the score’s inner workings, Kubelík as ever homing in on the woodwinds and violas (the latter especially in Pezzo serioso’s ‘Introductio’).
The most significant plus is in these artists’ shared vision, where each abandons, or seems to abandon, his specific role and opts instead for the overall role of musician pure and simple, Scarpini’s piano serving as a second, integrated orchestra, Kubelík and his Bavarian players often achieving soloistic levels of subtlety. Rhythms are loose-limbed though keenly energetic (sample the Tarantella fourth movement), and the score’s many dramatic passages fly high with purposeful dynamism: when Busoni cues shifting colours, these players rise to the occasion with an extremely generous palette. It’s more a recreation than a performance, a tribute to the music’s immense scale and expressive potential. The sound matches other top-ranking BRSO broadcasts from the period for luminosity and I’m happy to say that applause has been excised. An essential purchase for all lovers of this most complex and arresting of composers.