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ClassicsOnline Home » BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 8 (Harden) - 24 Preludes / Macchiette medioevali
Ferruccio Busoni’s Preludes, Op 37 and Macchiette medioevali, Op 33 were a product of his teenage years (1881–83), but they are far from being derivative juvenilia. In these charming and engaging works Busoni moves away from the Baroque and Classical models of his earlier works towards a more inventive and personal accommodation with the Romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century. Wolf Harden’s playing in this series has been described as “the clear current benchmark” (BBC Music Magazine on Volume 2 / 8.555699).
By Jed Distler
Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Piano Music • 8
Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli (near Florence) on 1 April 1866, the only child of a clarinettist father and a pianist mother. He made his début as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, before going on to Vienna for study and performance the next year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Leipzig in 1885, studying there with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow. Performing took up much of his attention until the turn of the century, when composing began to assume a greater importance, but never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period in Zurich during the First World War, he lived in Berlin from 1894 until his death on 27 July 1924.
The essence of Busoni’s music lies in a synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect, the imaginative and the rigorous. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music long remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor demonstratively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations are wholly bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past which has only gained wider currency over recent decades. Busoni left a sizable body of orchestral music along with four operas (the last, Doktor Faust, being his magnum opus and left unfinished at his death), but piano music forms the largest part of his output. Bach was a pervasive presence from the outset, both in the contrapuntal aspect of his music and in his repertoire as performer; a process of assimilation which culminated with the Bach-Busoni Edition published in 1918. Although Busoni’s later such work is arguably more creative interpretation than arrangement, an underlying strength of personality is evident from his earliest transcriptions.
It is a measure of Busoni’s compositional prowess while still a child that the 24 Preludes, written during 1880–81, was given as Op 37 in an early work-list and designated Kind. 181 in Jürgen Kindermann’s chronological catalogue. Although he had already been composing for eight years, the present work is in the nature of a summation of this first creative phase, moving away from the predominantly Baroque and Classical models of his previous pieces towards a more personal accommodation with the Romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century. The obvious precursor is the set of 24 Preludes that Chopin had composed some fifty years before: as in that ground-breaking work, Busoni organizes the separate pieces according to the cycle of fifths whereby the first is in C major and the final one is in D minor; the overall sequence might lack the formal cohesion and expressive inevitability of the Chopin, though the younger composer’s ability to secure long-term continuity from the simple contrasts between each of these pieces is a pointer towards the musical mastery to come.
Brief descriptions of each of these pieces, several of which are supplemented by descriptive subheadings, follow below:
No 1 in C major: A beguiling piece with a gracefully undulating melody and occasional hints at a more bittersweet expression.
No 2 in A minor: An ominous rhythmic motion underpins this moody piece with its more demonstrative middle section.
No 3 in G major: An affectionate and also ingratiating piece which takes on a greater expressive range as it leisurely unfolds.
No 4 in E minor: Marked ‘in the manner of a dance’, this lively piece has a more passive yet harmonically questing trio.
No 5 in D major: With its vigorous Baroque-like rhythmic profile, this is among the most infectious pieces of the whole cycle.
No 6 in B minor: Marked ‘in the manner of a chorale’, this thoughtful piece circles round its key prior to a resigned close.
No 7 in A major: Marked ‘in the manner of a gigue’, this is a piece whose Baroque lineage is clear in its cascading figuration.
No 8 in F sharp minor: An inward piece whose stealthy left-hand rhythm underpins an almost Eastern-sounding theme.
No 9 in E major: Marked ‘in country style’, this capricious piece has a nonchalant theme over a jaunty bass.
No 10 in C sharp minor: Among the most Chopin-like, this piece features an agitated interplay of theme and accompaniment.
No 11 in B major: Marked ‘as in a dance’, the mood changes markedly for this lively piece with its touches of deadpan humour.
No 12 in G sharp minor: Perhaps the most poised and elegant of the cycle, this piece enticingly marks the half-way point.
No 13 in F sharp major: With a nod to the early scherzos of Beethoven, this agile piece capers on to a good-humoured close.
No 14 in E flat minor: Marked ‘funereal’, this relatively extended piece has a fateful tread and impassioned climax.
No 15 in D flat major: Another Chopin-like piece with its winsome melodic profile allied to a gently lapping accompaniment.
No 16 in B flat minor: The shortest of the cycle, this piece surges forward inexorably on its plunging left-hand figuration.
No 17 in A flat major: Both melody and accompaniment remain closely intertwined during this animated and insouciant piece.
No 18 in F minor: Over gently lapping figuration, this piece unfolds a wistful theme with overtly melancholic overtones.
No 19 in E flat major: Another brief and decisive piece that once more recalls Beethoven in surging to its headlong close.
No 20 in C minor: A restless and twisting accompaniment underpins the reticent melody of this elusive piece.
No 21 in B flat major: This longest piece of the cycle features lucid textures that open out into greater contrapuntal intricacy.
No 22 in G minor: Among the pithiest numbers, this tensile piece is also one of the most resourceful in pianistic terms.
No 23 in F major: Another piece with a distinct Baroque influence in its ceaselessly revolving figuration and lively character.
No 24 in D minor: A nod to Mendelssohn in this subtly realized piece which closes the cycle in the deftest terms.
The second phase of Busoni’s creativity got underway during his period of study with Wilhelm Mayer-Rémy in Graz. From this period come numerous sets of character pieces that suggest the influence of relatively early works by Schumann, not least Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana, in which the outwardly disparate content is linked by a common subject-matter. In the instance of Macchiette medioevali—written during 1882–3 and given as Op 33 in a slightly later list of works and as Kind. 194 in Kindermann’s catalogue—the common link is that of archetypal figures from the Medieval period, this sextet of persons having been sketched with a keenly understated realism despite (or even because of) its undemonstrative piano idiom.
The first piece, Dama (Lady), has an easy grace and gentle eloquence that evoke the protagonist in the utmost chivalric terms. The second piece, Cavaliere (Knight), begins with surprising reticence before taking on a rather more forthright manner as it unfolds. The third piece, Paggio (Page), evokes faithfulness and dedication in its melodic fluency and resolute fanfare-like accompaniment. The fourth piece, Guerriero (Warrior), offers an apt description as its rhythmic vigour builds intently before a suddenly pensive close. The fifth piece, Astrologo (Astrologer), unfolds methodically and earnestly with a distinct modal quality to its ruminative ending. The sixth piece, Trovatore (Troubadour), recalls the mood of gallantry as its melody unfolds in songful terms towards a fervent conclusion.
Although Busoni moved into more demanding musical territory with his piano music from the later 1880s, the poise and engaging charm of these early works undoubtedly makes them an integral as well as necessary part of his creative output.
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BUSONI, F.: Piano Music, Vol. 8 (Harden) - 24 Prel...