SCHUBERT Complete Busoni Transcriptions
While Mahler was acknowledged as the conductor of his generation (Richard Strauss his closest rival), Busoni was the supreme pianist. For them, as for their contemporaries, Schubert was a composer of songs and chamber music. When he conducted the last two symphonies, Mahler received reviews ranging from indifference to scorn. Busoni played a few Liszt transcriptions and complained in his dotage that ‘master-scores have vanished, but the Entr’acte to Rosamunde (unhappily) lives on’: an attitude not untypical of his age.
Why, then, did they make their own arrangements of Schubert? Mahler was convinced that a full orchestra could unlock symphonic potential in the Death and the Maiden Quartet. Busoni’s reason for transcribing seven concert overtures was more down to earth: a commission from Breitkopf & Härtel, which he evidently fulfilled (when is unclear) not least as an exercise of intellectual ingenuity.
Opening the disc with the E minor Overture (D648) was unwise. In his booklet-notes, Marco Vincenzi bestows upon it kinship with the Unfinished Symphony: an outlandish claim until you study the orchestral score or listen to a performance of such gripping and immediate drama as that recorded by L’Orfeo Barockorchester (DHM, 11/12). Working backwards from the original to Vincenzi’s account of the Busoni transcription requires considerable imaginative sympathy: there is a smudged trill in the second phrase (not a problem in itself but the sign of things to come) and the excellent Steingraeber instrument is traduced by an airless recording, as if the microphones were almost inside the lid.
The scale of Schubert’s instrumental dialogue, and the fizzing wit of the Rossini-inspired works, are thus seriously compromised. Listening past all the bass tremolo and repeated chords reveals a lively rhythmic sense on Vincenzi’s part, but more of Busoni’s intentions in the E minor Overture may be gleaned from Holger Groschopp as part of his four-CD set of transcriptions (Capriccio); even he draws a veil over the other six overtures.