B...for Busoni

January 23, 2018

Ferruccio Busoni, (1866–1924), should come as no surprise to my supporters, as the next installment in the ‘A-Z of Composers’ blog series. If Busoni were alive today, he would most likely count himself lucky, being chosen for discussion instead of Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms!


Busoni is now most known for his excellent work as a transcriber for the piano; most famously for the Chaconne in d minor, by J. S. Bach, originally for solo violin. Busoni transforms the chaconne into a César Franck-like organ piece for the piano, yet perfectly maintaining the proportions of the original work. Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne has been popular since its composition was published, and Busoni himself even made a rudimentary recording of it on a piano roll. Busoni’s popularity as a transcriber of Bach, once led to a famous occasion where Busoni’s wife was introduced as ‘Mrs Bach-Busoni’...


However, what are most unfortunately neglected, are Busoni’s merits as a composer of original music. Born 1866—the same year as the eccentric composer, Erik Satie—as Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (names later dropped), into a musical family, Busoni enjoyed great musical possibilities as a child.


The year 1866 was a time of great artistic sophistication. In mainland Europe, Liszt was working between Weimar, Budapest, and Rome; Brahms completed his German Requiem Op. 45, Monet painted 'The Woman in the Green Dress' (seen left); in the Russian Empire, Vassily Kandinsky was born, and Tchaikovsky composed his First Symphony 'Winter Daydreams'. Yet Busoni lived to see the time of Schoenberg’s initial serial compositions; Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto; and the First World War.


One of Busoni's crowning jewels as a composer, is the Piano Concerto in C Major, Op. XXXIX (Busoni strangely insisted that the opus number be written in roman numerals!)


The Piano Concerto is gigantic and a typical performance stretches to 70 minutes, one of the largest ever composed. Formed of five movements; it is scored for a large orchestra, and male voice choir (final movement only) which sing a hymn to Allah, from Danish playwright, Adam Oehlenschläger's drama, Aladdin.


Piano Concerto in C major, Op. XXXIX—British pianist, John Ogdon, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Daniell Revenaugh. 


Despite Busoni's life-long efforts to come across as a German; the Piano Concerto contains a cornucopia of Italian songs which permeate each movement, especially the fourth movement, named 'All'Italiana'. Many moments of the Concerto are similar to a BWM fuelled on olive oil...


Completed in 1904, Busoni was the piano soloist in the first performance, in his adopted home city of Berlin. Ever since the premiere, performances have been scarce; perhaps due to the immense demands put on the soloist through the 183-page score, assembling a large orchestra and male voice choir, and all for a piece only moderately accepted by audiences.

The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo will be accompanied by American pianist, Garrick Ohlsson, for a performance of Busoni's Piano Concerto. 

Thursday 5 April 2018: Stockholm, Sweden.

More information here...

Busoni's legacy as a pianist is also notable. As a first-rate concert pianist throughout his almost 40 year concert career, Busoni gained a legendary status in his own lifetime. He was renowned for his intellectual yet flexible interpretations of the 'traditional' repertoire, and excelled in works by Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin. Thankfully, Busoni produced many piano roll or early acoustic recordings, which give us an experience of performances by one of the greatest pianists of all time.

 Busoni plays Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13—acoustic recording from 1922.

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