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Busoni: Late Piano Music
Busoni: Seven Elegies; Nuit de Noël; Fantasia after J.S. Bach; Canonic Variations and Fugue; Giga, bolero e variazione; Six Sonatinas; IndianischesErntelied; IndianischesTagebuch, Book I; Three Albumleaves; Toccata: Preludio, Fantasia, Ciaccona; Prologo; seven excerpts from Klavierübung; Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude; Seven Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing; Perpetuum mobile; Préude et étude en arpèges.
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Review By Joe Milicia


Best Audiohpile Music Of 2014 Blue Note Award  There is nothing quite like the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni: muscular, quirky, intellectual but energetic—and exhilarating to hear. Born to musician parents from Trieste, then part of the Austrian Empire, Busoni (1866-1924) had an international career as piano virtuoso, composer, conductor and teacher (whose pupils ranged from Percy Grainger to Edgard Varese). A celebrity in his lifetime, he was remembered for a while after his death mostly as a transcriber of Bach for grand piano, but he is now admired especially for his grandiose Piano Concerto (five movements with choral finale), his opera Doktor Faust, and a few orchestral works like the haunting, near-atonal Beceuseélégiaque. His many works for solo piano have appeared infrequently on disc, but now Marc-André Hamelin offers a hefty 196 minutes of it in a 3-CD Hyperion set with suitably impressive sound.

Hamelin is an ideal interpreter of this music, being a pretty muscular and intellectual pianist himself.  For demonstrations of both Busoni's ingenuity and Hamelin's distinctive playing, the purchaser of these discs might like to start with one of Busoni's fantasias on a famous piece of music.  For example, try the Elegy No. 4, subtitled TurandotsFrauengemach but based on "Greensleeves." (Busoni would later use the tune in his opera of Turandot, predating Puccini's by several years.) Hamelin plunges into the melody with tremendous flair and gusto, especially its second strain, while bringing out the distinctive features of the arrangement itself, including some odd harmonies. Or consider Hamelin's gorgeous rendition of the Sonatina No. 6, a "Chamber-Fantasia" on themes from Carmen. Longer and more structurally and emotionally complex are a brooding and powerful Fantasia on themes of J.S. Bach and a set of variations on Chopin's somber Prelude in C minor (the one that Rachmaninoff also chose for variations). But equally characteristic of Busoni—and of Hamelin's brilliance — are a couple of Mozart-derived pieces: a brief "variation-study" of Don Giovanni's Serenade and a more eccentric but commanding 4-minute "Gigue, bolero and variations." Hamelin is especially dazzling in this scherzo-like piece.

There are many more "takeoffs" from other composers in this set—and quite a few derivations from Busoni   himself, as in the Elegy No. 2, "All'Italia!" based on two passages from his Piano Concerto. Some of Busoni's sources and inspirations are fairly obscure, like an American Indian "Harvest Song" and "Diary" based on melodies gathered by an ethnomusicologist he met in the U.S. Much of the Erntelied  (Harvest Song) sounds as if it could be by Charles Ives, with its American-style folk tune caught up in swirls of arpeggios in another key, while the four-movement Tagesbuch is fascinatingly varied in mood. A lovely impressionistic piece, Nuit de Noël, contains a treatment of an obscure (to me, anyhow) Sicilian Christmas carol.

A number of works in the set are essentially exercises—etudes or "training pieces," as in the case of a prelude which the booklet essay describes as "a double-note study in both hands alternating mostly thirds and fifths, but played without recourse to the third finger." But such works are also a pleasure to hear: strikingly original, balanced on a cusp between Romanticism and Modernism, and exciting when rendered with such commitment by a virtuoso like Hamelin. One can hear the influence of Franz Liszt—especially the later, more experimental but not particularly "Romantic" piano music—transmuted through a love of Bach and Mozart (the former's intellectual rigor and depth of feeling, the latter's wit) into something very Twentieth-Century, pointing at times in the direction of Prokofiev, while largely bypassing the Wagner-Schoenberg path to Modernism. The remarkable Toccata from 1920 (divided into a Preludio, Fantasia and Ciaccona) is a good representative of both Busoni's late style and Harmelin's engagement with the music.

"Late" in the title of this collection means the last 17 years of the composer's life. The music is presented roughly chronologically on the discs: CD #1 is mostly music of 1907-9; #2 is 1910-21; #3 is mostly work of the early 1920s, much of it published in 1925, soon after Busoni's death. And this is by no means a complete edition—Busoni was prolific. But truly everything on these discs is worth hearing—the listener can spend many hours getting to know this music—and Hamelin seems dedicated to capturing the special flavor of each piece—not to mention possessing the rather impressive skills needed to play this music in the first place. Hyperion's engineers brilliantly capture the piano sound: the full range from delicate scales to thunderous climaxes. Elaborate counterpoint or cresting waves of arpeggios against an underlying melody are all clearly audible without edginess or the least bit of murk. A lengthy and interesting program booklet by Quebec professor Marc-André Roberge completes the package.





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