Signor Aart van der Wal wrote a beautiful review of the Bach-Busoni complete transcription release on Opus Klassiek. Read it in Dutch here: http://www.opusklassiek.nl/cd-recensies/cd-aw/bach_busoni01.htm or keep reading for an English translation (courtesy of Stephen Baggaley).


Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) has a reputation both as composer and pianist to recognise: the critically acclaimed Italian was known as an innovative composer and virtuoso on the keyboard. Many have even regarded this son of an Italian clarinetist and a German pianist (he did not inherit his talent from a stranger) as the successor of Franz Liszt.

His great love for Bach had awoken already in his childhood, when in the Busoni household the young scion received intensive music lessons. It was his father who passed on to Ferruccio a love for German music. The child’s enormous musical talent brought him as a seven year old to the concert stage, after which he gradually broadened his field of interest, not least through his music studies in Austria.

Ferruccio eventually made a name for himself as a teacher and his talent brought him to Leipzig, Helsinki, Moscow, New York and Boston. As a concert pianist he especially favoured the music of Mozart, Brahms and Liszt. He met Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Finally based as a conductor in Berlin (he married the daughter of a Swedish sculptor in 1894), he dared to put the “bold” music of Bartók and Schoenberg on the program and in 1906 he wrote in his essay “Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst” (Sketch for A New Aesthetic of Music) that muddling on the well-trodden paths had to come to an end and room had to be made for a new tone system. This was not exactly appreciated in certain influential circles. Amongst those was Hans Pfitzner, who saw the new movement as a threat to the healthy development of musical works (Futuristengefahr). Arnold Schoenberg was receiving sharp criticism during that time.

Busoni’s compositions did not come under as much fire, since he strove, as he himself dubbed it, to pursue the what he called “junge Klassizität” (literally ‘young (ie new or reborn) classicism’), with one of the most striking examples being the Berceuse élégiaque composed in 1909 and first conducted by Gustav Mahler. A year later came his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, much more than just a wink to his great exemplar, Johann Sebastian Bach. This principle also led him to the idea that there was nothing wrong with the adaptation of early music. On the contrary to Busoni there was no significant difference between the adaptation or the interpretation of a piece. In both cases, he thought that especially because of such adaptation, the original character of this music was brought back to the listener, a somewhat strange position that appeared to be granted only a short life and is certainly endorsed today by virtually nobody. It has, however, yielded interesting music as is evidenced by these two CDs that contain the complete Bach-Busoni transcriptions.

Busoni was a great connoisseur of Bach’s music and especially of his keyboard and organ works (as a pianist Busoni regularly performed many of Bach’s works). The question always and ever is, how far does an adaptation affect the essence, the character of the original, at least keeping in mind the assumption that a transcription can generally never improve on the original work. Regarding the transcription of Bach’s organ works, the knife obviously cuts with both sides: the transcription is not only meant for a different instrument, but there is also the question of the relocation of the performance, in this case from the church to other areas, such as concert hall, living room or some other place.

That must have been Busoni’s focus. His great qualities as a composer and pianist, as it were, stood guarantor for the integrity of his work as editor. Certainly, a piano is not an organ, but Busoni succeeded indeed on the one hand, to leave the uniqueness of Bach’s work alone, that is to say, he did not lift it out of its original context, and on the other hand, he created a transcription that in itself is unique. Two different forms of uniqueness that seamlessly merge. From this perspective, the transcription of the famous Chaconne is a bit of an odd one out, at least in my opinion. Because I feel that, in spite of the many more or less successful attempts in that direction (including that of Schumann), the “composed violin-like nature” of the work is not transferable to any other instrument.

The performance by the Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli excels in stylish articulation, rhythmic precision, very beautiful phrasing, with both hands in perfect balance (it goes without saying that the musical density of the left hand should often be dominant in the performance of these works, and indeed it is here). These are monumental renditions of monumental music, and they are also very beautifully recorded. The possibility of different interpretations is evidenced by other pianists, including Alfred Brendel (Philips) who, for example, does not hesitate to bring a certain insistence in the agogic accents and who ‘fetches’ a certain monumentality particularly from the slow tempi. Bartoli’s “romantic touch” is logical because it flows forth inextricably from these Busoni transcriptions. It is to Bartoli’s credit that he has provided clear insight in his sleevenotes. These are just as elaborate as his playing, that is in the best sense of the word.

Aart van der Wal, Opus Klassiek, July 2014