It’s now almost a century since Ferruccio Busoni died, yet fixing him into the history of early 20th-century music gets no easier. Fifty years ago Busoni was regularly included in surveys of musical modernism; never as a mainstream figure, but as one of its intriguing, forward-looking peripheral figures. Now, though, he seems more like a survivor of 19th-century romanticism, whose writings may have anticipated later developments in music, but with works that rarely delivered on their radical promise. With the exception of a handful of his Bach transcriptions, none of Busoni’s works could be regarded now as repertory pieces.
But he was unquestionably one of the outstanding pianists of his time and there are treasures to be found among the many works – original and arranged – that he composed for his own instrument. Peter Donohoe’s selection includes original pieces alongside one of the major Bach transcriptions, the C major Toccata, Adagio and Fugue; the set of seven Elegies, completed in 1909, takes up half the disc. One elegy is based upon a Bach chorale, while others derive from a scene in Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl, and from his incidental music for Gozzi’s Turandot; stylistically and pianistically their roots are clearly in Liszt, even if sometimes harmonically they go well beyond anything that he wrote.
What all the music here demands is immense virtuosity, whether in the glittering opening of the 1921 Toccata, the unashamedly Lisztian paraphrase of the Sonatina super Carmen, written the previous year, or the joyously explosive transcription of Bach’s Toccata. Donohoe fearlessly meets every challenge these pieces throw up with an infectious exuberance and crusading zeal to his playing; he really believes, you sense, that this music deserves to be much more widely heard and appreciated.
This week’s other pick
Hard on the heels of Alain Planès’ survey of Chopin’s nocturne, performed on a piano made by Pleyel in 1836, comes a complete set of the nocturnes from Deutsche Grammophon, played by Jan Lisiecki on what sounds to be a thoroughly modern Steinway. But the differences between the two sets are not limited to the instruments the two pianists use. Lisiecki is a far more imaginative player than Planès, with a fastidious control of colour and touch; sometimes perhaps the results are a little too suave and moulded, but there’s never any doubt that it is Chopin playing of the highest class.