I have reviewed several previous issues in this
excellent series over the years, beginning in 2007 with volume
followed in the next year. 2011 found volume 5 reviewed both by
and my dearly missed colleague, Bob
; finally, I reviewed volume
in 2010. The previous efforts were recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk.
There a change to Monmouth for the present disc, over to Wyastone Concert
Hall where the engineers have found a warm sound for Harden that suits
this music well.
The 24 Preludes obviously follows on in the manner of Chopin, retaining that composer's key scheme. Busoni's Preludes are, on average, a little longer, though (the longest is 4:24), taking the running time of the cycle to some 52 plus minutes. This gives Busoni time to spread his compositional wings, and explore the territory he sets up. Although relatively early in his output, these pieces could be by nobody else. There are references to his model occasionally. In the second Prelude, an Andantino sostenuto, Chopin meets Brahmsian sonorities for example, and also in the grace of No. 15. Elsewhere one can find hints of Beethoven: the somewhat gruffly playful No. 13 in F sharp. The spirit of the dance enlivens some: both numbers four and five, E minor and D major, respectively. Baroquerie is affecting in the gigue-like A major (No. 7). Harden can turn on the charm when necessary: No. 17. Counterpoint in any Bach-like sense is by no means as common as one might reasonably expect, although No. 21, surely not coincidentally the longest of the cycle, offers this aspect of the composer in spades before the ensuing Prelude adopts a more playful counterpoint.
It would not be Busoni without darkness, however, and this is hinted at in the very first Prelude before being taken up again, more seriously, in the storm cloud saturated No. 14: Lento, E flat minor. Harden is mightily impressive here, and then manages to provide just the right amount of contrasting light in the ensuing Prelude (D flat). Harden rises to each challenge admirably. No. 19 (E flat) offers a demonstration of how fine he is, technically; but he has the full measure of the more expressive Preludes, also. Interestingly, I hear Impressionist tendencies in the final Prelude (No. 24), while booklet annotator Richard Whitehouse finds Mendelssohn. In fairness I see what he means in the lightness of this Prelude's later stages.
It is medievalism that informs the Macchiette medioevali
, a set of six brief sketches of character types: Lady, Knight, Page, Warrior, Astrologer, Troubadour. Each and every portrait is absolutely captivating, from the suave Knight to the fanfares of the Page, a piece that I suspect carries more sophistication than the innocent ear might initially pick up. Then comes the simple yet effective heaviness of the Warrior, the studious tread of the Astrologer - which takes us into harmonic territory most readily associated with Busoni - through to the final, bright and dignified Troubadour. There are superb spread chords from Harden in that last piece. A delightful discovery.
In short, a fascinating disc and a vital part of this unfolding series from Naxos.