Busoni Piano Works

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Busoni Piano Works

  • Sonata for Piano
  • (7) Elegien

Until he reached his mid twenties Busoni was an amazingly prolific composer. The F minor Sonata counts as an early work (he was 17 when he wrote it) but it is preceded by no fewer than 200 others many of them short piano pieces, of course, but also including a full-scale oratorio, a Requiem Mass, two piano concertos, three string quartets and five other piano sonatas. Most of them remain unpublished, but if the astonishingly assured 24 Preludes and the entertaining Racconti fantastici and Macchiette medioevali (all earlier than this Sonata) are anything to go by, Busoni's juvenilia deserve careful investigation.
As one would expect from the Preludes, the Sonata reveals a composer who has nothing to learn in terms of craft and the ability to build intelligently on the best models. What is surprising, in the light of Busoni's own assertion that he only found his personal manner in the Second Violin Sonata (completed 17 years later), is the amount of recognizable Busoni that it contains, alongside the expected slabs of Schumann, Brahms and Liszt. The preoccupation with Bach is already there (the finale is largely fugal, and there is a fugato in the development section of the first movement), so are the big pianistic gestures, and alongside them an already exploratory attitude to form: the extremely rhapsodic yet coherent slow movement, the ingenious tying of thematic knots at the end of the finale. Most striking of all, the slow movement contains a clear prediction of the great 'Cathedral' theme that eventually gave rise, 20 years later, to Busoni's Piano Concerto. More and more one gets the impression that he did not compose separate opus numbers but a single gigantic, ever-developing edifice.
The process is still more obvious in the Elegien of course. The first is wholly and profoundly original, the foundation-stone for a new wing of the Palazzo Busoni, but the second takes up ideas from the Piano Concerto, developing them in dark and unexpected ways, the third is essentially a preliminary study for the Fantasia contrappuntistica, the fourth and fifth are bewilderingly transformed variants of scenes from Busoni's opera Turandot, the sixth a study for its successor, Die Brautwahl, and the afterthought-like seventh a first shot at the orchestral Berceuse elegiaque. It makes him look like, and he has indeed been dismissed as, a composer with too few ideas to go round. In fact he was an extraordinarily well-equipped musician (he must have learned from every one of the Sonata's 200 predecessors) to whom every idea opened up vistas of forked paths for exploration. It is the great merit of Wolosoff's performances (a debut recording, by the way) that they emphasize the exploratoriness of this music, its sheer strangeness: the shadowy, spectral quietness of the fifth elegy, say, or the audacious tonal explorations of the first. It helps that his sense of colour is so precise, and although he can pound out a magnificent fff he has noticed that a good many of Busoni's boldest frontier explorations take place at an intently lucid pp. A valuable coupling, in short, and it has been closely but very cleanly recorded.'

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