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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39 (1904) [70.22]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. live, 10-11 March 2017, Symphony Hall, Boston
German text included with English translation

This live recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto played by Kirill Gerstein documents the first time the Boston Symphony has performed the work in its 137-year history.

One of the greatest concert pianists of his time Ferruccio Busoni, an Italian by birth, lived for most of his professional life in Germany. As a composer today Busoni remains at the margins, known more by reputation than for actual concert performances. The book The Rough Guide to Classical Music states that Busoni “is the forgotten man of twentieth-century music”. A couple of years ago whilst reporting from Berliner Festspiele I visited Busoni’s grave prominently positioned in the Friedhof Stubenrauchstrasse in the Friedenau district. The Busoni work that came to mind then wasn’t the Nocturne symphonique (review) that I had heard the previous evening but the monumental Piano Concerto. This is a work I know from a number of recordings I’ve collected rather than from an actual concert performance.

In February 1902 Busoni wrote that he was planning to compose a piano concerto and also use Adam Oehlenschläger’s Danish text to the ‘Hymn to Allah’ from his play Aladdin (1805) based on a tale from the collection ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Two and a half years later in August 1904 Busoni had incorporated the Aladdin text into the fifth and final movement, ‘Cantico’ for male chorus of his Piano Concerto. Busoni himself described the work as a “skyscraper concerto” owing to its enormity of scale and size. The Piano Concerto was introduced in November 1904 at Beethoven-Saal in Berlin where Busoni lived for the last thirty years of his life. A renowned concert pianist, Busoni was the soloist with Karl Muck conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Chor der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. Sadly the work was critically slated, mainly for the inclusion of Italian street songs, and its having a choral movement gave additional reason for condemnation. It’s certainly a work that divides opinion. Egon Petri, a Busoni pupil wrote “A concerto to end all concerti… so beautifully written”. Conversely, Alfred Brendel expressed the view that it was “Monstrously overwritten”.” I think Alex Ross in The New Yorker had the most balanced view calling it “a remarkable feat of controlled chaos”. I could fill this page with quotations I have read concerning the work’s perceived faults, but there is far more to relish than condemn in this captivating score that provides plenty of awe, so on balance, I would best describe it as a flawed masterpiece.

A work at the centre of the Romantic tradition, this immensely proportioned concerto, Mahlerian in scope, is cast in five movements, taking here over seventy minutes to perform. Requiring prodigious stamina, with the soloist playing virtually continuously, accompanied by a large orchestra and, in the final movement, (s)he is also in battle with a male chorus. The work feels like the concerto counterpart of other immense great Romantic works such as Liszt’s Dante and Faust Symphonies and Mahler’s Third and Eighth Symphonies.

This formidable challenge for a soloist is met head on by Kirill Gerstein who grafts away assiduously, demonstrating high levels of intense concentration with fiery commitment and dazzling artistry. Striking in the opening movement is the quasi-religious feel to the orchestral introduction. Prominent here is a squally, moody character to the writing, with contrasting calmer sections. Full of drama and incident, both Scherzo movements are conspicuous for their forthright and urgent, driving rhythms. In particular the totally engaging second Scherzo, a kind of caricature Tarantella, has all the personality of a raucous holiday festival. Marked Pezzo serioso the third movement, in four sections, is generally calm, appealing and unemotionally undemanding. With its choral German text, a mystic hymn to Allah, sung heartily by the Men of the Tanglewood Chorus, the excess of the final movement doesn’t entirely work for me but it does make a significant impact of devilish wickedness. Sakari Oramo succeeds in holding everything together admirably and conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a colourfully expressive performance.

Recorded in live performance at Symphony Hall, Boston at the conclusion sixty-seven seconds of applause is left in. In the above review title block I give the time of the actual performance without the applause. No problems with the recorded sound which provides respectable clarity and surmounts what must have been extremely tricky balancing issues. Lavishly presented the album contains a separate booklet with several rare photographs while Busoni specialists Albrecht Riethmüller and Larry Sitsky provide detailed and interesting essays. I’m glad to report that the sung German text is included with an English translation alongside.

There have been a number of recordings of the Piano Concerto. Over the years the ones that I have encountered are from soloists Pietro Scarpini (1966) on FHR, John Ogden (1967) on EMI, Volker Banfield (1986) on CPO, Peter Donohoe (1988) on EMI, Garrick Ohlsson (1989) on Telarc, Marc-André Hamelin (1999) on Hyperion and a rather disappointing account from Roberto Cappello (2009) on Naxos. On balance this new release played by Gerstein is the one that stands out of the pack.

On Myrios Classics this is a penetrating and persuasive performance by Kirill Gerstein of the rewarding yet rarely encountered Busoni Piano Concerto an early, if flawed, twentieth-century masterpiece which deserves to be heard more often.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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