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Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Concerto Op. 39 BV. 247 (1904) [69:56]
Pietro Scarpini (piano)
Bavarian Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
rec. live, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 25 November 1966
Text and translation included

The massive piano concerto by Busoni with closing men’s chorus is the culminating work of his first period and sums up what he learned from the piano masters of the past, without venturing far down the more exploratory paths of his later work. It has never been widely performed, but has of late been surprisingly often recorded. Its reputation as the most demanding of concertos, requiring more technique and stamina even than the Brahms second and Rachmaninov third concertos, has led its being treated by those pianists who can tackle it as somewhat of a mountain to be scaled.

The Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini (1911-1997) enjoyed a successful career between the 1940s and the late 1960s, when he retired, as a thinking man’s virtuoso, who played, as well as the standard piano classics, a good deal of then contemporary music including Schoenberg, Petrassi and Dallapiccola. He did not make commercial recordings but apparently made private tapes of his concerts. This recording is of a performance from 1966, using the Bavarian Radio recording, and has had legendary status for some years. This is its first commercial issue. It is the brain child of the Rome-based musicologist and museum curator Antonio Latanza, who considered it ‘the perfect version’ and pressed for its release. It has been remastered by David Murphy and Giampaolo Zeccara and I should say straightaway that the sound quality is fine, and no allowances have to be made for the age of the recording. Only in the final chorus did I find a little congestion in the sound.

It has been worth the trouble. In the opening Prologo e intrada you immediately sense Kubelik’s firm grip on the orchestral line, in an idiom close to Brahms but with that equivocation between major and minor so characteristic of Busoni. When the piano enters, in a part so massive that it has to be notated on four staves, Scarpino nevertheless shapes the pounding chords up and down the piano, and his piano runs and decorative passages are absolutely smooth and apparently effortless.

The following Pezzo giocoso, a scherzo, as in Brahms’s second concerto, is alternately capricious and relentless. The long Pezzo serioso, in effect the slow movement, is in four sections, and gives plenty of scope both for Scarpino’s lyrical playing and for Kubelik’s shaping of the orchestral lines. The fourth movement is headed All’Italiano and is a tarantella; it is rumbustious and at times quite noisy. It also features an enormous cadenza. You might have expected this to be the finale, but then, after a transition, we have a male chorus enter with a solemn setting of a hymn to Allah by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschlaeger, from his play Aladdin, in the author’s own German translation. In this movement the piano plays mainly when the chorus is silent. The effect is rather like that of the end of Liszt’s Faust symphony, when a male chorus enters with the closing chorus of Goethe’s Faust. You might also think of the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia.

What makes this such a good performance is not just the considerable talents of Scarpino and Kubelik but the fact that they so clearly work together, have a shared and coherent conception of the work, and are able to realize it. As a performance it seems to me equal to my benchmark, Garrick Ohlsson with Christoph von Dohnanyi, and superior to Marc-André Hamelin with Mark Elder. It is a limited edition so collectors should not hesitate.

Stephen Barber



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