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Friday, February 9, 2007



Published: September 1, 1985

Ferruccio Busoni was a musician of many skills. During the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, Busoni was one of the most talented - and controversial - of piano virtuosos. He probed deeply into music's intellectual content, becoming an author and theorist whose avant-garde ideas were of incalculable importance for the growth of 20th-century music. And the creative spark burned brightly in Busoni as well; though his own compositions have never been as well known as his transcriptions, they reveal much about the peculiar state of affairs in turn-of-the-century German musical life.

Yet Busoni was also a musician riddled with contradictions. Born in 1866 during the full bloom of Romanticism, he died in 1924 during the rise of that anti-Romantic movement known as neo-Classicism, and both his performances and his compositions vacillated between those two extremes. He aimed to rid pianism of the excesses of Romanticism, to try to return more closely to the composer's intentions.

When he applied this dictum to Chopin, it was deemed intellectualized, cold, unemotional. Yet he practiced an impassioned, massively Romantic approach to Bach which strikes one as almost embarrassingly inappropriate today. Similarly, he decried Romantic program music, urging a return to the absolute formal structures of Bach and Mozart. Yet he admired Liszt - that quintessentially Romantic, most programmatic of composers - and constantly played his compositions. It is no wonder that Busoni's own music displays such a welter of crosscurrents ranging from nostalgic post-Romanticism to objective neo-Classicism.

Busoni is best known for his Bach transcriptions, and a recent disk is devoted to four of these (HK/Marco Polo 6.220153), performed by the pianist Sequeira Costa. Busoni's transcription of the famous ''Chaconne'' from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin reveals much about how he perceived Bach, and how he understood his role as a performer. The ''Chaconne'' is no longer real Bach in substance, but it is faithful to the composer in spirit, never violating mood or phrasing. Busoni has, in essence, orchestrated Bach at the keyboard: implied harmonies are strengthened, registers varied, pedal point and octave doublings added, counterpoints devised. The wonderfully idiomatic piano figuration recalls Liszt in its massive runs, dazzling arpeggios, and broken octaves. The pianist is clear and precise, though a bit bland emotionally; one misses the unabashedly Romantic virtuoso fireworks.

As a composer and theorist, Busoni is less easy to define. In 1907 he published his ''Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music,'' a work which predicted the course of 20-century music with almost psychic insight. Busoni pleaded for a music that would be utterly free: released from the bondage of rhythmic and structural norms, from the major and minor scale system, from distinctions between consonance and dissonance. He urged exploration of microtones and electronic techniques. By 1920, Busoni, always on the cutting edge of avant-garde thought, was espousing a ''new Classicism,'' aiming for an objective approach that would rid music of programmatic connotations. This anti-Romantic dictum became a manifesto for young neo-Classicists such as Hindemith and Stravinsky.

How successful was Busoni in translating these ideas into the reality of his own compositions? A recent recording of orchestral music performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Michael Gielen (Vox Cum Laude CD, MCD 10019) helps us to answer this question. Late in life Busoni turned to opera, and the Cincinnati release pairs a suite from his ''Turandot'' (written in 1904/ 11, long before Puccini's drama) with two studies for ''Doktor Faust'' (1918-19). The movements from ''Turandot'' are filled with appropriately Eastern inflections in modes, scales and instrumentation. All is deftly orchestrated, and in briefer sections one can admire Busoni's peculiar blend of expansive post-Romantic melody and witty neo-Classic objectivity. But in larger movements, Busoni cannot seem to reconcile the divergent tendencies: echoes of Mahler and Strauss, from anguished marches to surging, chromatic melodic outbursts, do not gel with the nascent neo-Classicism, and formal incoherence is the result.