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ClassicsOnline Home » BUSONI, F.: Piano Concerto (Cappello, Luca Marenzio Choir, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Busoni’s monumental Piano Concerto was completed in 1904 and remains the longest piano concerto to have been heard in public. He thought of the work as his ‘Italian Symphony’ but this Concerto for piano, orchestra and male chorus is an unclassifiable product, and an extraordinary synthesis of Austro-German and Italian impulses. In its virtuosity and lyricism it is one of the most remarkable works in the repertoire, making use in its final movement of the ‘Hymn to Allah’, from Adam Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin. Roberto Cappello triumphed at the Premio Busoni competition in 1976 and is a leading international soloist.
By Daniel Foley
Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Concerto, Op. 39
The Piano Concerto remains the pivotal work in the career of Ferruccio Busoni, after which, the emphasis on his rôle as a composer rather than as a performer was secured in artistic though not commercial terms. A composing prodigy on a par with Mendelssohn, his output during the 1890s slowed markedly compared to the previous fifteen years. The middle of that decade saw a group of major works, including the Second Symphonic Suite for orchestra, Six Pieces for piano [Naxos 8.570891], the Violin Concerto, Comedy Overture and Second Violin Sonata [8.557848], after which Busoni bided his time in readiness for the next stage of his evolution.
The antecedents for the present work stretch back to Busoni’s adolescence, an Etude in D flat for piano being drawn upon in the third movement, while his intention of writing incidental music for Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin found fruition in the verses from that play sung by male chorus in the finale. Yet it was not until 1901 that composition commenced in earnest and three years (towards the end of which, Busoni went so as to cancel concert engagements so as not to interrupt his efforts) before work was complete. Busoni himself was soloist at the première, in Berlin on 10 November 1904, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Karl Muck. The reception was equivocal and on occasion hostile, no doubt attributable to the sheer scale of the work (at around 75 minutes, it remains the longest piano concerto to have been heard in public) as well as its overall conception. The composer performed it frequently thereafter and a younger generation, led by Busoni’s pupil Egon Petri, who gave the British première in 1909, championed its cause, though the work was in limbo after the Second World War and it was not until John Ogdon took it up in 1958 that the concerto re-established itself. Today it holds a place at the margin of the repertory but its stature is widely acknowledged.
In spite of its virtuosic pianism and considerable orchestral demands, the work’s innovation lies rather in its conception sui generis. Better described as a ‘Concerto for pianoforte, orchestra and male chorus’, Busoni thought of it as his ‘Italian Symphony’ and it indeed represents a striking synthesis of his Italian origins with the Austro-German tradition into which he had been inducted at an early age and whose hold he attempted to objectify over the remainder of his life. A key to understanding the work is the frontispiece (by Heinrich Vogler, after the composer’s sketch) adorning the published score: three buildings, representative of Graeco-Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian architecture, separated first by a flower and a bird, then by a volcano and trees; a juxtaposition of architecture and landscape, the rational and the intuitive, that the concerto plays out in sound […] and which has yielded a new as well as potently affirmative synthesis by the close.
The first movement, Prologo e introito, opens with a hymn-like theme on strings which is the basis of all that follows. Woodwind and upper strings continue the theme, and a fanfare-like motif appears on woodwind and trumpets. An intent motion on lower strings builds via a gradual crescendo to a fervent statement of the theme on full orchestra, now with a ‘sighing’ motif which winds down to a serene pause, only for fanfaring brass and surging strings to instigate a dramatic climax. The soloist enters with a passionate variation of the theme, with interjections from strings and wind, then the tension subsides for a further transformation of the theme on woodwind and horns which the soloist decorates with fanciful arabesques. The latter urges greater activity which culminates in a restatement of the fanfare motif alternating with virtuosic passagework from the soloist. A rhetorical pause, then the music resumes with a rhapsodic variation on the theme between soloist and woodwind, strings entering as a note of uncertainty is sounded. The texture thins out, only for the soloist to bring about a trenchant response from the brass. This makes way for a recollection of the sighing motif on woodwind and strings, the soloist responding with a calm, incantatory idea that ushers in the tranquil close.
The second movement, Pezzo giocoso, begins with scurrying runs across the keyboard, gleefully responded to by upper strings and woodwind, which leads into a raucous idea on brass. The soloist builds intensively to a charging elaboration of this idea on strings and woodwind, which continues in a mood of ironic humour until the music subsides with a purposeful motion on pizzicato strings. A new theme, pensive and somewhat archaic in demeanour, is […] passed thoughtfully between woodwind over simmering strings, the soloist re-entering in a mood of anticipation to a deadpan response from woodwind and strings. This gradually swings round to the return of the raucous idea, after which the soloist builds with alacrity to a brazen restatement of the main theme over strings and timpani. This subsides into an ominous version of the pensive theme low in the keyboard, before a spectral coda for soloist and percussion brings the evocative yet equivocal ending.
The third movement, Pezzo serioso, commences with an undulating motion over which a sombre theme on strings and woodwind unfolds, to which woodwind append a more defiant idea. This subsides in the strings, the soloist entering in conciliatory mood that brings a prayerful idea from trumpets and woodwind. This is the basis of a barcarolle-like motion for the soloist that develops as new motifs are heard across the keyboard and the strings take up the prevailing motion as a mood of hieratic calm comes to the fore. Rumblings in the lower strings do not as yet undermine this, but a seemingly peaceful close is denied by an impulsive gesture from the brass. An intensive rhythm on strings provides the basis for a heroic new theme from the soloist, taken over by lower strings then woodwind and on which the soloist comments accordingly. Tension increases and the music surges forward in a welter of keyboard texture, behind which woodwind continue with aspects of the heroic theme until the soloist charges ahead and elements of the sombre initial theme are passed heatedly around the orchestra. After a powerful climax, the soloist winds down to a now eloquent recollection of the defiant theme on brass and woodwind, making way for a return of the opening music on woodwind and strings. The soloist eases into the barcarolle theme, unfolding with stealthy intensity to an ominous restatement of the defiant idea with trumpets to the fore. This subsides into a return of the introduction, combined with aspects of later themes that secure a calm though (given the ominous timpani underpinning) ambivalent conclusion.
The fourth movement, All’Italiana, starts with restless strings and inquisitive woodwind as the soloist launches the main theme over a purposeful tarantella rhythm. This builds through excited repartee between the soloist and woodwind to an energetic climax with brass and percussion to the fore. Curtailed soon afterwards, the music […] subsides with dreamy recollections of ideas from earlier in the work, but the tarantella rhythm is not to be denied and soon ushers in a swaggering new episode that accelerates first into a hectic march and then into a return of the initial energy. The soloist soon propels the orchestra into a pulverizing restatement of the main theme that at length makes way, by way of pounding timpani, for a nonchalant theme on woodwind then strings which surges forward to an animated climax. After this the soloist re-enters for a highly virtuosic cadenza that culminates in a ricocheting fanfare from full orchestra, to be followed by three questioning pizzicato chords.
The fifth movement, Cantico, opens in great uncertainty with elements of themes heard earlier mused upon by woodwind and brass against eddying strings and delicate arabesques from the soloist. At length the music takes on […] greater affirmation and, over easeful strings, moves toward the introduction of the offstage male voices, which solemnly intone in rhythmic unison a variant on the hymn-like theme with which the work began an hour earlier. This is extended at some length, maintaining a rapt and Olympian calm, until the tempo increases and tension picks up accordingly. Having remained in the background thus far, the soloist is here allotted a largely accompanimental rôle but, when the chorus alights on the heroic theme from the third movement, it again withdraws in deference to the orchestra, which soon propels the steadily accumulated intensity towards a climax. This culminates in a triumphal restatement of the fanfaring theme from the first movement, its optimism soon halted by an ominous recollection of the defiant idea from the third movement, but the final entry of the chorus acts as a benediction from which soloist and orchestra surge onward to a fervent statement of the incantatory motif that ended the first movement: now suffused with a certainty borne of conviction.
It is worth noting that Busoni later devised an extended version of the fourth movement cadenza which leads straight into the finale’s orchestral coda, removing the need for the male chorus. Yet this procedure has never found favour, performers wisely choosing to give the work as the five-movement entity that the composer intended.
Text of the fifth movement Cantico for distant men’s voices
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BUSONI, F.: Piano Concerto (Cappello, Luca Marenzi...