|No. 247 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.|
The second of our “one work montages” features a work that is quite unique, both in its format and its very sparse discography: the only piano concerto by the late 19th– early 20th century virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni.
Busoni was the prototypical Renaissance man - composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and teacher. A child prodigy, largely taught by his clarinetist father (his mother, a pianist, was also a professional musician), he began performing and composing at the age of seven. Busoni composed in his early years in a late romantic style, but after 1907 he developed a more individual style, often with elements of atonality. His piano compositions include original works and transcriptions of the works of others, notably Johann Sebastian Bach. In that sense, one can think of Busoni in the same vein as Liszt, Godowsky, and other piano virtuosi who composed “showpieces” for their own use.
His other compositions include chamber music, vocal and orchestral works, and also operas, one of which, Doktor Faust, was left unfinished at the time of his death. Busoni died in Berlin at the relatively young age of 58.
Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C major is one of the largest works ever written in this genre. The concerto lasts around 70 minutes and is in five movements; in the final movement a male chorus sings words from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger, a Danish playwright who’s a contemporary of Goethe.
The first performance of the concerto took place in Berlin on November 10, 1904, at one of Busoni's own concerts of modern music. Busoni was the soloist, with Karl Muck conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The reviews were decidedly mixed, some being filled with outright hostility or derision. Apart from the immense demands required of the soloist and the large forces needed, there is a further difficulty that can affect performances of this work: the role of the soloist.
As Busoni himself wrote, piano concertos tended to be modelled after either Mozart or Beethoven. In Mozart's case, the concerto centres around the spotlit virtuoso composer-performer, who appears to spontaneously create the work before us, on-stage. The orchestra mostly provides a background accompaniment. But with Beethoven, it’s the reverse - the work is often conceived in symphonic terms; the piano takes the secondary role, reflecting on or responding to ideas that have already been introduced by the orchestra (the fourth piano concerto being the exception).
Busoni combined both these perspectives in the Piano Concerto: a huge work of symphonic proportions which presents exceptional challenges for the soloist, who is often required to incorporate a glittering cascade of notes into the overall orchestral sound. This self-abasement of the familiar 19th-century heroic soloist's role thus requires careful consideration of balance in performance.
It seems to have been Beethoven who first included a chorus in a concertante work with piano and orchestra (his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80). since then only a handful of works have been scored for similar forces, including Daniel Steibelt's Piano Concerto No. 8 and the Piano Concerto No. 6 by Henri Herz which also have a choral finale. Adam Oehlenschläger's verse drama Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp was first published in Danish in 1805. The play has a number of parallels with the works and ideas of Goethe, such as the Faust-figure of the wicked magician Noureddin who takes advantage of Aladdin's youth and inexperience to get hold of the wonderful lamp; Goethe was also much preoccupied with Plato's philosophy, including his theory of Forms and the Parable of the cave.
During his travels in Germany in 1805-6, Oehlenschläger spent several months in Weimar in the company of Goethe and his closest circle of friends. He used the opportunity of his daily visits to read out Aladdin to Goethe, freely translating from the Danish. At the time, Goethe was in the process of completing the final version of Faust, Part 1.
As I stated earlier, Busoni worked late in life on an opera based on Faust, but was equally taken with this early German version of Aladdin and planned to adapt it as a one-evening work. However, Busoni never completed his adaptation of Aladdin, although he did compose music for the final chorus in the magic cave; this made its way into the Piano Concerto.
Since its premiere in 1904, the concerto has seen relatively few performances, owing to the large orchestration, complex musical texture, the use of a male chorus, and the staggering demands put on the soloist. Consequently, its discography is sparse (refer to this Wikipedia entry), and as was the case last time with the Messiaen Turangalila symphoiny, we turn to a vintage stereo recording from the mid-1950’s featuring the late John Ogdon who, like Marc-André Hamelin today, had a reputation in exploring arcane (and technically challenging) piano repertoire by the likes of Alkan and Busoni.
The conductor in this performance, Daniell Revenaugh, studied piano with Ferruccio Busoni's pupil Egon Petri from 1951 until Petri's death in 1962. He later founded the Busoni Society, and has amassed a large and important collection of Busoni and Petri materials. This recording of the Busoni concerto won the Deutscher Schallplatten Preis, the Montreux Award, a Grammy nomination, and has remained in the EMI catalogue for decades.
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