We badly need a new recording of Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni’s outsize, five-movement Piano Concerto (1901-04); more importantly we need a superb one: this from Kirill Gerstein and Sakari Oramo, courtesy of Boston Symphony concerts, hits the spot, and is very well recorded, with presence, perspective and just balance. The one slight drawback is that applause is retained, too much as well (more than a minute), and rightly enthusiastic as it is, it jars; I wonder which of the two performances is being acknowledged. It is though a small point.
Quite why Busoni’s music is so out of fashion these days is a mystery; he deserves far better – a bit less programming of certain other composers and certain other works that are these days being done to death would help. Honegger’s music needs a lift, for example, and, as for Busoni, there is original stellar piano music (in addition to his transcriptions) and he himself was one of the finest pianists of his generation, something that Claudio Arrau (no less) remarked upon, having heard Busoni live. And something like the ‘Sarabande’ from Doktor Faust (Busoni’s unfinished opera) is as visionary and as spiritual as anything written by anyone at any time.
Not that Busoni made programming his Concerto per un Pianoforte principale e diversi Strumenti, ad arco, a fiato ed a percussione; aggiuntovi un Coro finale per voci d'uomini a quattro parti. Le parole alemanne del poeta Oehlenschlaeger, danese; la Musica di Ferruccio Busoni, da Empoli, anno MCMIV, opera XXXIX easy, for not only is it long it also requires a male chorus to conclude the work with words from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by (Dane) Adam Oehlenschläger; Busoni used the author’s German translation and set the text mellifluously. Furthermore, although the writing for piano requires transcendental virtuosity (Busoni was the soloist at the premiere), it isn’t obvious; and indeed Busoni removed obbligato from his first titling. Therefore, the scope of the piece is more for a symphonically-minded team-player of a pianist, Gerstein an exemplar of this.
When Oramo conducted it in London in December 2014, the pianist was Garrick Ohlsson (who has recorded it with Dohnányi, John Ogdon initiated the discography), the conductor put it in a Rachmaninov and Nielsen context, whereas in Boston the coupling was Sibelius's contemporaneous Symphony 3. If you respond to Liszt (especially) and Brahms, and have an ear for Mahler’s worldliness and Bruckner’s Heaven-reaching epics, then Busoni’s ambitious design(s) should fit the bill, the profundity of the serioso central movement (the longest of the five and which climaxes volcanically) offset by the rumbustious giocoso second (humour overt and dark) and the scintillating ‘Tarantella’ that is the fourth; as if Liszt’s Totentanz had transferred to Italian folksiness, the music increasingly demented as befits being bitten by a venomous tarantula.
The Concerto opens with a musing yet noble idea for orchestra, guaranteed to haunt the mind, to be enshrined in pomp before the pianist gets a look in, an imperious entry though, and closes in full cry, exhilarating. In London, the most-recent concert performance was that with Ohlsson; the next is 1 May 2020, Igor Levit with the LPO and Tony Pappano (alongside Bach orchestrations by Respighi and Stokowski). Busoni’s Piano Concerto may not get out much but when it does it keeps the best company. Alfred Brendel too, quoted in the annotation thus: "This performance of Busoni's Piano Concerto is as superhuman as it is meant to be."