in: Reviews

March 11, 2017

Fogg Books Bravura Busoni

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Anyone who criticizes the Boston Symphony for only playing the tried and true, or the unfamiliar only when accompanied by a warhorse, needs to hold silence this weekend. Under Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo (currently conductor of both the BBC Symphony and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic), the BSO presents two under-performed early 20th century gems by Sibelius and Busoni. This series is unfortunately truncated (the piano soloist might disagree, for reasons stated below), consisting only of Friday afternoon and Saturday night. If you were on the fence about tonight, brave the cold and go hear it. While there is no explicit theme to discerned, both works were written in the first decade of the 20th century, and both bask in the light and warmth of C major.

The Symphony No. 3 of Jean Sibelius, op. 52 (1907), transitions from the Romantic effusions of the ever-popular No. 2 to the sparer, more fragmented style that asserted itself in No. 4. That said, it’s an open, user-friendly proposition that knits its disparate but completely intelligible strands into a grand summation. The BSO has only performed it in seven seasons (though Colin Davis seems to have conducted it twice in the ’72-’73 season, five months apart), and only twice in the last 40 years.

While the idiom of Sibelius 3 invites the listener to imagine woodland chatter, forest depths and expanses of sky and sea, it is anything but a tone poem. It is constructed with formal rigor, albeit of Sibelius’s idiosyncratic designs. In a compact three movements, it presents in its first movement motives rather than themes, beginning with a scurrying figure in the low strings (decisively articulated but perhaps a bit too loud). Some transitional passages, oddly, evoke the spirit of Mahler’s First Symphony, though the latter’s nature-worshipful ideas were far from Sibelius’s intentions. There are handsome, broad sweeps of sound, ably molded by Oramo, before the movement reaches a noble, yet surprising, new-tune coda. Despite the slight miscalculation at the beginning, Oramo’s dynamic control was superb. The slow movement (well, slow-ish) would sound like the processionals from Beethoven 7 or Mendelssohn 4, except it’s in triple meter. There are stellar orchestral touches, flute and clarinet colloquies with pizzicato strings (no violins, bowed violas well in the background), and again a touch of Mahler 1, this time the funeral march, though without Mahler’s irony. The finale opens with a scherzo-like figure under tight dynamic control, developing speed, volume and force as a broad folk-like melody develops from the various motivic figures, with hints of the Finlandia tune. This builds steadily to a radiant glow of northern sunlight—that’s C major for you. Oramo plainly loves this piece, and his steady hand and subtle rhythms and dynamics made it a pleasure to hear. More, please.

The big kahuna of the afternoon was the BSO’s first-ever performance of Ferrucio Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C Major, op. 39 (1904). We confess we long ago wore out a copy of John Ogdon’s legendary recording from 1967; Garrick Ohlsson’s from 1989 with the Cleveland Orchestra is here. Hugh Macdonald’s program note for the BSO is a fairly restrained exercise, so we can refer you here to Alex Ross’s appropriately over-the-top appreciation, to which we can add a dry comment from British composer Judith Weir (part of a commentary on a piece of her own) that “the 19th century piano concerto is actually a form of the martial arts.” There are very few pianists who take on this 70-minute-plus monster, which doesn’t have a cadenza and doesn’t need one because the entire work barely gives the soloist a moment’s break. Kirill Gerstein amazed us with his bravura, concentration (just imagine what it takes to learn this beast) and chops, but he should require a month in the country now to rest his fingers, wrists, arms and shoulders.

So what’s in this piece apart from lots of strenuous piano playing? Quite a lot to think about, actually. It begins, in a way, with a joke. Ross’s remark about the concerto’s opening homage to Brahms is only a little misleading: there’s the main tune, which has some aspects in common with the opening of Brahms’s Second Concerto, but then there’s a wink in the direction of the classic tradition, in which Busoni does not bring the piano in until the orchestra has given its exposition, consisting of that tune and something more like a rhythmic motif tied to a cadential phrase. Then the piano part for this movement consists in large measure of the sorts of filler passages, arpeggios, turns, trills and the like, that fill a lot of space in 18th and early 19th century concertos. one of the very greatest of the very great piano virtuosi of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Busoni clearly wrote this fodder for his own concert tours. Busoni was also a deep thinker on the esthetics of music, and saw himself, half Italian, half German, as a bridge between these opposing esthetics. With its references to German formal construction, Lisztian pyrotechnics, Art Nouveau Mahlerian expansiveness and grandiosity, and Italian lilt and lyricism, this is a Gesamtkunstwerk that requires no stagecraft (though it did require singers).

After the Apollonian Brahmsianism of the first movement, the second—the first of two scherzos that sandwich the expansive middle movement—is a Dionysian orgy of fury more Lisztian than Liszt, built on a very Italianate foundation. One can also note here Busoni’s sure hand with orchestration, and Oramo’s sure hand in keeping the many lines clear. One will also notice that Busoni has fashioned his very disparate musical moods out of materials common to the opening movement, though subtly so.

The middle movement, which Busoni subdivided didactically into four sections, an introduction and three “parts” (though those parts form a fairly recognizable ABA structure), with the introduction’s principal melody an interesting fusion of Wagnerian chromaticism and diatonic phrase endings, and the first/third parts based on two tunes of nearly banal simplicity that get a thorough Mahlerian working-out in the manner of the Eighth Symphony, along with the material from the introduction. Apart from some muddiness in the “B” section (part 2), Gerstein and Oramo did justice to the slow-moving but cumulatively devastating grandeur of this music. The second scherzo is a tarantella, of the most intense and diabolical kind, a frenzy of notes that, truth to tell, was played so much for speed that clarity was truly beside the point (as Hindemith might have put it, Tonklarheit ist Nebensache). This movement is definitely the most self-indulgent part of the concerto, with climax after climax, and it goes on too long, though when it ended, with a series of gentle pizzicatos in the basses, it elicited the chuckle Busoni probably intended it to do, before proceeding to the attacca finale.

Sakari Oramo conducts Kirill Gerstein (Winslow Townson photo)

Somebody correct this if it’s in error, but the Busoni concerto is probably the only piano concerto to have a chorus in it. Of course, there is the precedent of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, but that’s a short-ish one-movement piece, not a multi-movement work. Of choral symphonies, by 1904 there were plenty of examples. Many have pointed to Liszt’s Faust Symphony as the inspiration for Busoni, but why stop there? In a return to the calm demeanor that characterized the first movement, Busoni’s finale follows an orchestral introduction with a setting for male chorus (the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, superbly prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya) of text from Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin, from which Busoni had once toyed with the idea of making an opera. The text contains lines like “The pillars of the world stand peacefully here…Life and death are playfully exchanged./ But quietly awaiting they stretch out…” In other words, reinforcing the sense of eternity, of all things becoming one in the divine presence. The moment the chorus enters was one of the high points of the performance, by the way, a perfect welling up from silence; bravo to Oramo and Yankovskaya for making that happen. For the rest of its work in this movement, the chorus demonstrated the precision, warmth and clarity for which it is justly famous. The finale shares the problem Beethoven had in the Fantasy: once the chorus enters, the piano becomes largely superfluous, and while (as in Beethoven) the piano has a few licks and then gets in the last word after the chorus finishes, the compositional problem is clearly one that Busoni couldn’t solve any better than his illustrious predecessor.

Needless to say, Gerstein got the tumultuous applause he richly deserved. We are informed that programming what he refers to as the king of piano concerti was the brainchild of BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg as part of a season-long celebration of the acquisition of two new Steinways. Fogg deserves an equal share of the kudos along with Gerstein, Orama, Yankovskaya, the orchestra and chorus.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

14 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The tarantella possesses a diabolical relentlessness that suggests it for a ballet version of “The Red Shoes”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 11, 2017 at 5:53 pm

  2. Invisible nude chorus?

    Though the Italian score-marking invisible seems perfectly straightforward, some absurd confusion has arisen regarding the composer’s exact wishes. The British critic Eric Shanes, dreading an impending performance of “Busoni’s justly neglected piano concerto” at the London Proms concerts in 1988, dropped a bombshell: “I’m sure the trend to authenticity will not be respected here: Busoni requested that choir appear in the nude.” In notes I wrote for the Cleveland Orchestra performances leading up to this recording, I dismissed that notion (or so I thought) with obvious ridicule. If the choristers were to be invisible anyway, why would Busoni have cared what they were wearing? To my amazement, at least two critics subsequently reported Shanes’s contention as fact, so I must be clear: Busoni requested only that the choristers remain hidden.

    (this note from James Oestreich of the NY Times)

    Comment by David Moran — March 11, 2017 at 6:01 pm

  3. A pianist once told me that he would like to play the Busoni concerto, but that conductors don’t know what to program with it. I think the combination of works on Friday’s concert was perfect. Great programming!

    Regarding Vance Koven’s question about concerti with choral writing: Wikipedia mentions a piano concerto by Herz and one by Steibelt, both of which have choral finales. (I’ve never heard them). Also, despite Sibelius’s objections to “misleading speculations about descriptions of nature and about folklore…” in his symphonies, the Boston Globe reviewer today couldn’t resist telling us that he heard “forest animals scurrying about” during the first movement of the Third Symphony, while during the coda “the animals all stand at attention.” Later in the symphony “the animals were being directed in an immemorial ritual by Finnish spirits, perhaps the forest god Tapio.” Is this music criticism? Then, there was Hugh Macdonald’s trite comment in the program booklet about the Busoni: “The central slow movement is the heart of the concerto.” What exactly does that mean? It’s in the middle? I would say that the heart of the piece is the first movement, because, as with most large scale works, the concerto would make little sense without it.

    Comment by George Hungerford — March 11, 2017 at 9:45 pm

  4. I just listened to the broadcast on CRB. The Sibelius was OK, but it was so badly miked in the Busoni that I encourage anyone who wants to know what this piece actually sounds like to listen to one of the recordings cited in the review.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 11, 2017 at 10:22 pm

  5. First, a huge THANKS to the BSO for finally programming the Busoni piano concerto. That we’re hearing it for the first time live in Boston only 113 years after it was written is certainly remarkable.

    That said, I was really disappointed by the Saturday night performance. Kirill Gerstein was excellent and you could barely have asked anything more of any piano soloist. The problem was the conductor’s interpretation, or lack thereof. It felt like Sakari Oramo was little more than a traffic cop who eschewed the responsibilities of interpretation. The reading was tremendously under-characterized, and Oramo did not provide any shaping or structure that is clearly there for the taking. And then beyond that very great void, there’s so much in the piano concerto, with moments of immense beauty, wonder, and a gamut of emotions from nearly negative infinity to positive infinity, that just never showed up. Magical moments that I knew were coming went before they ever came. The whole thing just came across as a morass, and it failed to tell a story that in other hands it can so memorably tell. What a shame, because the piano concerto is a wondrous, uplifting, life-affirming piece of music that it seems to me breathes the same air as the best of Scriabin (which is air that I want to breathe). Hopefully the BSO will take another shot at this again soon with a conductor who is really inside the music and can deliver a performance that it deserves. Kirill Gerstein certainly deserved better.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm

  6. And one other comment…it seems to me that the opening of the piano concerto pays homage to Schumann’s 2nd symphony. The similarities are too great for it to be truly coincidental.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 11, 2017 at 11:25 pm

  7. Mogulmeister, although this was the Boston Symphony’s first performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto, it wasn’t the first time the work has been performed in Boston, nor even in Symphony Hall. Around the time the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus under Christoph von Dohnányi recorded this concerto with Garrick Ohlsson for Telarc in 1989, they brought it to Symphony Hall. I was there in the audience, and remember it well. I especially remember James Oestreich’s program note, with its speculation about the “offstage, nude” men’s chorus (as mentioned in David Moran’s comment above), and I’m glad that I and my fellow Tanglewood Festival Chorus colleagues were fully clad and onstage, as were the Clevelanders back then.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 12, 2017 at 3:55 am

  8. Steibelt’s concerto with chorus is mentioned in Harold C. Schonberg’s The Great Pianists, which is worth looking at again just for the wonderful description of Steibelt’s visit to Prague, cited from Tomaschek’s memoirs. One other piece for piano and orchestra with chorus, well worthy of revival, is Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande(1927), with jazzy text by Sacheverell Sitwell.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 12, 2017 at 11:11 am

  9. Thank you Mark, as ever a source of musical arcana. The Wikipedia entry on Daniel Steibelt does record his Concerto No. 8 (1820) as the first piano concerto with chorus (several years ahead of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony!), and goes on to mention Henri Herz’s Concerto No. 6 (1858) in addition to Busoni as the only choral piano concerti.

    MM, I think you’re right that the opening tune sounds similar to the Schumann; I’d forgotten about that. Still, I think the overall cast of the first movement does more homage to Brahms than Schumann.

    And thanks to Stephen Owades for letting me know that I wasn’t crazy when I thought I remembered hearing Ohlsson play the Busoni in Boston. I had searched Ohlsson’s and other online sites in vain to find mention of a Boston performance then.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 12, 2017 at 2:26 pm

  10. Mr. Koven: I was able to pull up Richard Dyer’s Boston Globe review of the Ohlsson/Cleveland/Dohnányi performance of January 29, 1989 via a search for “Ohlsson Busoni Busoni” in the paper’s online archives, helping to confirm my own memory of hearing it. The review doesn’t identify the chorus—a bit surprising, since we are rarely visited by out-of-town orchestras bringing their own choruses to town—but it was the men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

    I haven’t listened to the broadcast from last Saturday, so I can’t comment yet on the sound quality versus the live concert (where my seat on stage right behind the tuba hardly gave me an ideal balance!). Brian McCreath of WCRB tells me that the Busoni won’t be made available for on-demand streaming due to rights asserted by the publisher from whom the parts were rented (even thoogh the work is long out of copyright), so anyone wanting to hear this performance should listen to the rebroadcast on Monday, March 20 at 8pm.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 13, 2017 at 2:46 pm

  11. Thank you, Stephen Owades, for McCreath’s tip about no on-demand streaming. The announcer for the Saturday night broadcast made a special point of reminding listeners that the concert would be streamed “in a short while.” Now I won’t wait for that chimera and will make sure to listen to the rebroadcast on March 20th.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 13, 2017 at 3:54 pm

  12. Steve, I was at the 1989 performance of Ohlsson/Dohnányi, my first hearing of the piece, it was literally, jaw dropping. I immediately purchased the John Ogdon/Daniell Revenaugh recording which I occasionally play- it’s a piece I can’t hear too often, but when I do, it has the same fascination and impact on first hearing. A unique piece in the repertoire. Also thanks for the March 20th heads up.
    My orchestra seat in row R provided decent balance and the men’s chorus was superb.

    Comment by Terry Decima — March 13, 2017 at 5:59 pm

  13. The British composer Alan Bush wrote an hour-long piano concerto with a choral finale. I’ve heard two performances of the piece (via off-the-air recordings) and can’t remember a note of it.

    Comment by David Frieze — March 14, 2017 at 11:08 am

  14. And here I was thinking that you’d been to a single concert at Royal Albert Hall.

    Comment by Camilli — March 14, 2017 at 7:45 pm

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