BUSONI: The Visionary III = Toccata; Ten Variations on a Theme of Chopin; Prelude et Etude; Nuit de Noel; Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach; BACH: Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat Major for Organ,“St. Anne” – Jeni Slotchiver, piano – Centaur

BUSONI: The Visionary III = Toccata; Ten Variations on a Theme of Chopin; Prelude et Etude; Nuit de Noel; Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach; BACH: Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat Major for Organ, BWV 532 “St. Anne” (trans. Busoni) – Jeni Slotchiver, piano – Centaur CRC 3396, 68:50 (1/13/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded 11-13 January 2012 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, this third installment of Ms. Slotchiver’s ongoing “Busoni: the Visionary” series surveys a number of the composer-pianist’s late works and one of his four major Bach organ transcriptions, the “St. Anne,” which premiered in 1890.

“Listening to Busoni’s music,” Ms. Slotchiver says, “we enter a world rich in lyricism, vibrant rhythm, harmonic invention, and the development and transformation of compelling ideas. Beyond this journey, layers of history, philosophy, mythology, opera and theater emerge, further illuminating and informing the experience. The audience embarks on an astonishing voyage.”

Slotchiver opens with Busoni’s three-movement Toccata (1920), his last major composition. Typical of the composer’s “layering” process, the knotty figurations of the “Preludio” echo the obstacles Busoni noted in his model, Frescobaldi. The askew harmony of the “Fantasia” combines the chromatic harmony of Franck with the ceremonial chordal structures in Liszt. Busoni’s attempt to “liquefy” polyphony assaults our senses, even as the bass tissue becomes increasingly massive. Busoni himself took the dotted rhythm to signify Mephisto, in obvious response to Liszt. Slotchiver suddenly executes a bridge passage, Animando assai, that leads into another contrapuntal morass, the final “Ciaccona,” thoroughly based on the same form of Bach’s D Minor Solo Partita, BWV 1004. The unrelenting stretti, rather mercilessly, proceed to a crashing A-flat Minor, the last, punishing chords a reminder of the Liszt B Minor Sonata.

The Ten Variations on a Theme of Chopin – the C Minor Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20 – represent two distinct periods in Busoni’s life – 1884 original and 1912 – the year of the work’s revision. If the eighteen-year-old Busoni imposed a heaviness on Chopin modeled on the German figure of Brahms, the revised score has become lyrically transparent, contrapuntal, and playful. The right hand figures easily remind us of Liszt’s La Campanella in the cotillion sonorities. Busoni places his fugal materials in the context of a wild tarantella. The metric variety seems to combine moments of Debussy, Gottschalk, and Gershwin, with a later, wry parody of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz.

At the behest of pianist Isidor Philipp, Busoni created his Prelude et Etude (en Arpeges) in 1923. The late work sings singularly in bitonal fashion, testing the player’s articulation in staccato as well as legato figuration. Several of the motifs complement the love music for the opera Doktor Faust. The succeeding Etude combines aspects of both Scriabin and Ravel, for pure breadth of color and richness of sonority. Busoni seem intent on liberating the thumb position from its “subservience” under the moving four fingers. Bells and hortatory hymnal cadences collide and merge in the manner of a fantasia, the spirit “ecstatic” in the same sense we acknowledge Scriabin of the last five sonatas.

The 1908 Nuit de Noel: Esquisse pour le Piano projects a kind of pagan, pantheistic response to the New Year, a flotation device of folk color and liberated nuance, in the manner of late Liszt and contemporary Debussy. Ostinato patterns and repeated notes clash and meld rather in phantasmagorical sequences, certainly reminiscent of old-church modes but no less anticipatory of John Adams and some of the aleatory composition ninety years forward. The whole might be regarded as a virtuoso contrafactum, the use of secular contexts for an originally sacred context.

The Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach: Alla Memoria di mio Padre of 1909 used to supply a standard repertory piece for Egon Petri. That Busoni conceived the totality of his polyphonic creativity as Nachdictungen – epilogues and analogues to the master creator Bach – comes to the fore in this composition dedicated to Busoni’s father, Ferdinando. Bach has been translated and transmogrified into a ‘sublimated’ status, here in Nietzsche’s sense that “made sublime” means a simultaneous “deepening” and “raising up.” The F Minor opening sequence moves through sectionalized motifs that embrace the chorale-preludes Christ, der du bist helleTag and In dulci jubilo. The chordal allusions embrace the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue. The contest of harmony and invention, F Minor and F Major, collide and expire in exalted terms that Liszt himself might have coveted for his Dante Sonata.

Finally, the piano rendering of Bach’s 1739 Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat Major (1890) constitutes a “free arrangement” of the massive score, exploiting the modern piano’s capacity for colossal sonority that would rival the diapason of the organ original. To add to the sheer mechanical challenge of the Bach occasion, Slotchiver must constantly adhere to a strictly “vocal” conception of the various independent lines evolving under her fingers.

As an illumined, ardent disciple of the Busoni tradition, Ms. Slotchiver succeeds admirably, especially as her Hamburg Steinway resonates in thrilling colors captured by Engineer Tim Martyn.

—Gary Lemco

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