Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni


Many years ago, I had the opportunity to play for a great Italian conductor. As a young pianist seeking erudite and illustrious approval, I started out with Bach’s Chaconne in the famed Busoni arrangement. “Very well, very well – said the Maestro cheerfully – what will you play next for me?” I ventured into Liszt’s Nineteenth Hungarian Rhapsody. “You made changes – inquired the Maestro, a white, bushy eyebrow raised just enough so that I could tell he was not pleased – Why?” I explained that I had not made any changes; rather, I had just played the Busoni version of the piece. The Maestro was puzzled: he had not known that Busoni had made an arrangement of the Rhapsody, and he asked me to play something else. I announced La campanella and immediately saw that the Maestro’s features relaxed somewhat: he knew that one! Alas, after the introductory two bars he stopped me in my tracks: “It is not written like that!”, he erupted. Quietly, I went to my bag and retrieved my copy of La campanella, duly published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1916… in the version by Ferruccio Busoni. Flustered, the Maestro proclaimed that I suffered from a severe Busoni condition (‘Busonitis,’ he called it), and engaged me in a lengthy conversation as to why I had chosen to play his versions rather than the originals. On that occasion, something must have gone wrong, as not only I never did play with that conductor, but he expressly suggested I leave the Busoni versions aside and concentrate on more “serious music.” The very fact that you are reading these lines, however, attests to the fact that I choose to ignore his advice, and insisted with Busoni and his transcriptions. Here is why.

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni (1866 – 1924) was a most intriguing musical figure at the turn of the Twentieth Century. A child prodigy who was already a veteran of the concert stage by the age of twelve, Busoni was a pianist of extraordinary power and vision, the protagonist of a turbulent and multifarious life. Isidor Philipp, a famed French piano pedagogue who had heard most of the great late romantic pianists, used to say that “there are many good pianists, and all play very well; but then, at the very top, there is Busoni.” Such was the lore surrounding Busoni the pianist, that many of his other enterprises went unnoticed or, worse still, unappreciated (the same is true nowadays, as Busoni is often remembered for his Bach transcriptions to the detriment of his other, no less impressive, works). Prolific composer, author, pedagogue of infinite influence, Busoni, on more than one occasion was referred to as ‘the last Renaissance man,’ a tribute to the sheer spectrum of his intellectual abilities which, by all accounts, were truly formidable. The proud owner of more than five thousand volumes on subjects ranging from Philosophy to Science, he was able to recall from memory their content at random. Such immensely broad knowledge enabled Busoni to approach music with a wholly new and at times revolutionary attitude. This novel conception he applied not only to his original compositions, but also to his way of playing and teaching his instrument. In 1909, in a letter to his wife, Busoni confessed: “I no longer play the piano with my hands. This manner of playing causes everywhere a great impression, irrespectively of what I play.” It was a testament to his attained goal, that of having surpassed every imaginable physical impediment in order to aspire to ever increasing interpretative heights.

The collection of pieces presented here are a selection of works from Busoni’s own concert repertoire. During the entire Nineteenth Century and a few decades of the Twentieth, it was common practice for concert pianists to ‘adapt’ music to suit their expressive and technical needs. In our era of exactitude and philological rigor, we tend to regard such operations with distrust and superiority. True, in some cases this amounted to downright simplifications (as attested, for instance, in numerous humorous reviews by George Bernard Shaw), but occasionally a great pianist’s insight into the works of another could generate miraculous results (a good example could be Vladimir Horowitz’s versions of selected compositions by Liszt). Typically, one would take these small licenses in the privacy of his practice suite, deploying them tacitly during the course of public performances. In typical maverick style, Busoni went a step further and wrote everything down, often illuminating his choices with rational and pertinent explanations for his each and every intervention. Here is a fitting example, taken from the introductory note of his edition of Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan: “Throughout my entire piano career, I have always strived to simplify technique and to reduce movement and energy waste to the bare necessities. I have reached the conviction that the conquering of technique is nothing more than the adaptation of a given difficulty to one’s capacity. […] The performance requires a new level of adaptation time after time, an individual nuance.” These sound principles were the starting point for his Klavierübung, a ‘piano tutorial’ that eventually reached the impressive size of ten volumes. Its proclaimed aim was to pass on Busoni’s monumental knowledge of piano technique and to offer alternative solutions to technical and interpretative problems that a professional pianist would encounter regularly in the course of a performing career. The tenth and final volume of the Klavierübung consists of ‘Étuden nach Paganini-Liszt’, a series of pieces he subtitled ‘transcription studies.’ These are the very same items that form the first part of the present recording.

During the 1830s, violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) had taken Europe by storm with his unique blend of Italian lyricism and demonic virtuosity. His concerts were the high point of musical activity, and inevitably left audiences bewildered, bewitched and, more often than not, incredulous. More importantly for our purposes here, Paganini’s exploits deeply impressed and influenced scores of young composers, among which figured the best nomenclature of Romanticism: Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Having heard the Genoese violinist, Liszt barricaded himself in his studio for six months, practicing the piano endlessly in an effort to replicate on the keyboard what he had heard from the violin. When he emerged, he had in fact revolutionized piano technique. His own version of six Paganini pieces (originally titled Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini) appeared in print in 1838 and were subsequently reworked in a sleeker, more quicksilver edition in 1851, retitled Grandes Études de Paganini. The latter formed the basis for the Busoni version presented here. Unlike what he had done with his Bach transcriptions, where at times he had altered the fabric of the original to a substantial degree, Busoni maintained Liszt’s text almost unchanged throughout, concentrating his interventions on the physical repartition of notes between the hands and underlining certain passages with more idiosyncratic phrasing. Thus etudes No.1, Tremolo (from Paganini’s Caprice No.6, published in 1914) and No.2, Andantino capriccioso (from Caprice No.17, published in 1917) sound almost identical to the Liszt version. Matters change dramatically with no.3, La campanella (a famous paraphrase on the third movement of Paganini’s Second violin concerto, dedicated to none other than Leopold Godowsky and published in 1916). Busoni altered the musical text more forcibly, adding discordant harmonies in an effort to replicate the effect of chimes, rewriting virtuoso passages and giving the piece a different, almost ethereal character. He remained more restrained in his versions of No.4, Arpeggio (from Caprice no.1, published in 1921) and no.5, the celebrated La chasse (from Caprice no.9, published in 1914), but returned to a more extroverted handling of the original Liszt for the final number, Tema e variazioni (from Caprice No.24, published in 1914). In this virtuosic adventure, Busoni adhered more constantly to Paganini’s musical text than Liszt had done, and of the 11 variations only two were left unchanged, whilst all the others displayed an even more impervious writing than the Liszt’s original. For the Klavierübung, Busoni composed a slightly abridged version of this piece with a new coda of a modernist character.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No.19 was Liszt’s final number in his collection of Gypsy-inspired fantasies. A product of the mature Liszt, it is a dazzling showpiece that figured in the repertoire of many concert pianists (Rubinstein, Rivè-King, and Horowitz to name but a few). In his ‘freely arranged for concert use’ edition, Busoni cuts the musical material in half, avoiding each of the repetitions prescribed by Liszt and thus rendering the piece more cohesive. Rewriting occurs mostly toward the end of the work, where Busoni embellishes the original with flying figurations and powerhouse double octaves for a suitable grand finale.

In 1859-62, Liszt worked on Mephisto Waltz, a spirited orchestral piece based on an episode from Lenau’s Faust and subtitled Dance at the Village Inn. In the introduction to the score, one can read the following note: “There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods […].” Liszt produced an independent piano version of the piece, which became an instant concert favorite. At a Berlin concert in 1901, Busoni apparently improvised on the orchestral version of Mephisto Waltz to rapturous success, and three years later the work appeared in print by Schirmer of New York. Dedicated to A. Rozwadowski, it is a grand statement of pianistic command and breathtaking technique, that perhaps even surpasses Liszt’s original piano version in terms of daring and stamina.

Liszt composed the Fantasia and Fugue on the choral ‘Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam’ from Meyerbeer’s opera ‘The Prophet’ for organ. It is a grandiose creation, imbued with masterly handling of polyphony, poignant lyricism and a hefty amount of virtuoso writing. Busoni was a serious student of counterpoint, and his passion for the works of Johann Sebastian Bach had inspired him to devise new and brilliant solutions to the problems associated with transcribing organ music for the pianoforte. It was almost inevitable that a work of this scope and proportions would exert an irresistible attraction for the titan of pianists, and in 1897 Busoni published his transcription with Breitkopf & Härtel, with a dedication to Josef Sattler. Rarely played nowadays (it requires uncommon stamina, as well as a solid grasp of Busonian technique), it remains a masterpiece of its kind, and is as good a testament to Busoni’s genius and vision as any of his Bach transcriptions.

Since I played for the old conductor, I have performed these mercurial versions of Liszt’s music many times. It has been my experience that audiences tend to ask the very same question: “are the Busoni arrangements more difficult than Liszt’s originals?” The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the middle. Here and there, Busoni tends to render the texture of the music more transparent, almost cristalline, and in those instances it is definitely less onerous to conquer a passage; on the other hand, often Signor Busoni thickens the texture, changes the register, and requires the deployment of every trick of the trade in order to let the music take its natural course; here the pianist’s task becomes much harder indeed. Quite aside from the novelty factor associated with studying and performing these arrangements, their intrinsic value lies in the extraordinarily “individual nuance” that Busoni was able to instill into them even through the slightest alteration. To have the possibility of enjoying Liszt’s music through the eyes and mind of Busoni is not only and exciting venture, but one filled with surprising and instructive turns.

Sandro Ivo Bartoli,
Zeri, December 2010