This piece, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, won the first Rubinstein prize for composition in 1890. It was widely recognized that Busoni should also have won the piano prize at the competition, but Rubinstein himself felt that, at least during the first awards, one prize should go to a Russian.
The Concertstück is often dismissed in writings on Busoni as an early work and therefore as too derivative and immature. Much has been made of the Brahms influence in particular. This seems to me overemphasized. [...] When the solo part feels and sounds like Brahms, the combination with orchestra has none of the Brahmsian opulence, but is already finely etched even at this early stage, and contrapuntally rather than harmonically conceived.
J. C. C. Waterhouse writes of a particular section of the Concertstück:
For 1890 this is extraordinary. The vertical combinations, it is true, are orthodox enough Wagner-Liszt; but semitonal melodic steps have virtually replaced tonal and triadic concepts as the basis of the music's logic, to an extent not matched even in Tristan, where chromatic scales are still usually heard as sighing suspensions or appogiaturas within a harmonically conceived framework. We see here an exceptionally early instance of what was to become a fundamental principle of Busoni's more chromatic harmony: a peculiarly individual use of the melodic step of a semitone, in both directions and at all levels of the texture, to give the music a sort of controlled instability that is strangely unsettling.
This is perhaps a trifle overenthusiastic; the passage in question (the meno mosso, sostenuto section, page 16 in the solo part) is full of those sighing, chromatic, harmonically resolving suspensions that one finds in Tristan - however in principle the observation is perfectly sound. What I find particularly interesting in this interlude is Busoni's constant avoidance of the temptation to overscore, to richly double parts. Wagner is certainly apparent in some of the progressions, but not in their scoring; the characteristic Busonian aloofness and serenity, often interpreted as coldness, is present in a marked degree. Is this the result of studying much late Beethoven at this stage of his pianistic career? Bach is present too [...]. Liszt, although responsible for some of the purely pianistic figurations,
is markedly absent, for we find no violently virtuosic explosions; once again Busoni avoids the temptations that would seem to obviously beset the path of a young composer-virtuoso writing a concert piece for his instrument.
Therefore, instead of a thundering, exuberant display piece by the young Busoni, we are unexpectedly presented with an almost anti-romantic refinement. The positive qualities of this composition lie in its being a real precursor of much later Busoni. From this point of view, it would be legitimate to regard the great Concerto Op. XXXIX as an almost retrograde step.
The Concertstück begins with an orchestral introduction setting out the four principal themes, with some interrelationship between the themes themselves. There is also a motive, common to I and III, a simple rising scale-preceded by a drop of a third in III - which is used soloistically later in the work. I have called it V, although it is not a separate theme.
Adhering as the piece does to the outward trappings of sonata structure, the solo entry would serve as the expected second half of a double exposition: Busoni overcomes the problem of repetition by ostensibly giving the piano new material, which is, however, clearly derived from theme IV, in three forms, all of which assume later importance. Theme IVa serves as a sort of walking bass in passacaglia style; Wb is a more diatonic, simpler version of the chromatic theme; and IVb consists of two notes of the same theme, used as a sequential dyad.
Thus, the true developmental process begins with the entry of the piano, or even earlier, since the four themes can almost be said to be derived out of an organic growing process.
The piano also immediately evolves a rhythmic variant of IV, which is combined with IVc and treated in canon. The double exposition then ends with a coda in which solo piano and orchestra represent the themes not already used in the solo entry, namely a massive version of II, an elaborated version of III, and V in double octaves. Themes IV and IVb are heard some more; the whole exposition ends with the passacaglia derivation IVa in the piano leading to a close in D major.
In some catalogues of Busoni's work the Concertstück is described as an Introduction and Allegro. Considered as a sonata, the allegro which now follows is, formally, the development section.
The tutti allegro theme (VI) has some rudimentary resemblances to both II and III, possibly incidental and just possibly the beginnings of a technique of cellular metamorphosis, soon to become completely natural to Busoni. By the time of the Concerto Op. XXXIX and the sonatinas such techniques were refined and used with the utmost flexibility.
The cadenza that follows the allegro tutti opens with a contrapuntal passage, the subject of which is, perhaps, yet another derivative of II. The countersubject in this passage is composed of falling 3rds in' quavers, which give way to a diminution of motive I, which appears for the first time since the opening of the Concertstück in this rapid disguised form and then more openly in virtuoso alternate hand sequences. Yet another version of IV appears, which I have labelled IVd. As 1Vc used the first two notes of IV, so IVd now uses the remaining three notes.
Theme I now appears in Brahmsian mold. Throughout the development, V has made spasmodic appearances: it is now a short, nervous, upward-thrusting figure. Finally, at a vivace tempo, it makes a full-blooded entry extending over a bar and a half. The allegro theme (VI) is heard once more, and the development is at an end.
Now follows a short bridge passage (meno mosso, sostenuto), leading back to the recapitulation, concerning which Waterhouse was quoted earlier on. The recapitulation does not confine itself to repeating material from the exposition; some sections of the development are used as well. Themes II and III are ignored from here on: the concentration is on various guises of IV, I (the Brahmsian variant), and V (the vivace variant). Although some sections reappear unchanged, the developmental process continues. For instance, the coda (a più allegro), uses I in stretto, rhythmically altered and inverted; logically, V is also heard in downward double octaves. There is a very Brahmsian pedal point with languorous suspensions resolving sequentially downward, starting with the flattened 7th, then a final D major double-octave rush. But even here, where one would expect fireworks, the virtuoso element is held in very strict check.
The Concertstück, although firmly rooted in D major (the opening is in d minor), is nevertheless harmonically unstable in parts (see the first solo entry and the later cadenza), either modulating rapidly, or else using the semitone makeup of theme IV to create tonally ambiguous passages. It alters time signatures rather more frequently than would have been common at the time. Finally, the writing of long cadenza stretches for the piano, the tenuous scoring, and avoidance of piano and orchestra in combination merely to whip up a frenzy are all indicative of Busoni's next work for this combination: the Indian Fantasy.