Ever challenging and knotty, the often academic figures in Busoni retain their experimental vigor in Grante’s powerful realization. 

BUSONI: Elegies; An die jugend – Carlo Grante, piano – Music&Arts CD-1290, 61:43 (4/20/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded December 2013 on a Boesendorfer instrument, the Seven Elegies (1908) and the four-movement An die Jugend suite (1909) of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) by Carlo Grante still startle with their advanced harmonic syntax and post-Romantic sensibility. Busoni, rather than rejecting traditional harmony in the manner of Schoenberg, turned to various polyphonic techniques taken directly from ancient music—the madrigals and motets of the Renaissance—to layer his unorthodox chordal progressions with inversion, dissonant modulations, and eccentric combinations of major and minor thirds.  Traditional tonality, then, assumes a greater and more chromatic flexibility, altering the sound world in ways that suggest Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin without having become merely imitative of their efforts.  Busoni felt that the Elegies express his new, creative manifesto, a turning point in music that well conforms to Leonard Bernstein’s assessment of 1908 as decisive for the aesthetic evolution of expressive means.

The opening Elegy No. 1 Nach der Wendung (“After the Turning”) exploits the idea of mutatio toni, changing modes,  a procedure typical in Italian Baroque practice, fused with a sense of longing in the top voice over thick, bass harmony. This Elegy No. 1 will find parallels in the Elegy No. 6, which was originally to create an ourobouros. Elegy No. 2 All’Italia! In the Neapolitan Mode juxtaposes major and minor progressions within the framework of a lulling, barcarolle rhythm.  The melodic idea soon cedes its authority to the dissonances and thick, block chords that alternate D and D-sharp. Suddenly, what had been a variant on a Neapolitan song “La fenestra ca lucive” becomes a fiery tarantella that exploits the three-hand effects we hear in Schumann and Godowsky transcriptions.  Some of the liquid scale-patterns echo the third movement of Busoni’s own Concerto, Op. 39.

The Third Elegy Meene Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir anticipates the later Fantasia Contrappuntistica, an evolution o Bach’s chorale-prelude, Allein Gott in deer hoehe, set as a bitonal progression in A and E-flat. Busoni capitalizes on precise repetition to illuminate at once his sonic image and to denude the line of ornamentation so that its bare simplicity reveals a kernel of Truth, a procedure somewhat reminiscent of D’Indy’s Istar Variations. Elegy No. 4 Turandots Frauengemach, Turandot’s Intermezzo, provides a free-wheeling piano transcription of the 1905 orchestral suite Busoni took form Gozzi 1762 fairy-tale. The tune “Greensleeves” undergoes ambitious transformations in staccato and virtuoso grandiosity that rival Liszt and Thalberg.

The Fifth Elegy may appear to be the most “modern,” by today’s standards of aleatory and minimalist effects. Subtitled Die Nachtlichen Waltzen, the seventh piece of the 1905 Turandot suite, the piece in rapid motion achieves a series of kaleidoscopic effects, drunken and illuminated at once, a toccata that projects aspects of Ravel and Debussy.   The Elegy No. 6 Erscheinung (Notturno), the Visitation Nocturne, takes it motif from Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl.  The askew treatment seems rife with late Liszt, say Nuages gris, with lugubrious harmony and unresolved cadences. Quivering runs and obsessive repetitions suffuse the texture, while a plangent melody struggles to gain the rarified upper regions.  The Seventh Elegy Berceuse realizes Busoni’s notion of a “distilled” essence in music, in which bitonality – F Major and A minor in the middle part – fluctuate and coalesce in points of light and shade. The liquid pattern lulls us into a false sense of serenity, even as a mystical eddy surrounds us. There are hints of a “fate” motif and bits of the Liszt Funerailles that resolves on E natural.

An die Jugend evokes more of Mahler than Schumann, a four-movement suite of pieces devoted t youth’s sense of risk and experimentation.  Book I: Preludietto, Fughetta ed Esercizio conveys an improvisatory approach to Bach counterpoint.  The melodic content seems less important than its capacity for harmonic variation and intervallic permutation. The third part, the Esercizio, with its liquid runs set against ostinato bass figure, achieves lucidity and compulsive insistence at once, Debussy cross-fertilized by Satie. Book 3: Giga, Bolero e Variazione exploits Mozart’s Gigue, K. 574 – that same piece Tchaikovsky uses for his Op. 61 – and the Fandango from Act III of The Marriage of Figaro. The Gigue returns but in 2/4, while having accrued all sorts of passing notes. Grante’s approach, highly percussive, adds the tension that Busoni exacts from a piece otherwise innocuous. Book 2: Preludio, Fuga e Fuga figurate begins with Bach’s Prelude in D Major, which Busoni embraces for its motor power. The accented downbeat propels the music in such a way that its thickening texture leads to a cadenza and then the Fugue, a percussive French Overture which shares the Prelude’s harmonic basis.  The sudden dissonances in the bass set the music in counterpoint to itself by superimposition.  Book 4: Introduzione e Capriccio (Paganineso) & Epilogo takes its cue from the Liszt set of 6 Paganini Etudes. The Paganini Caprice No. 11 lies buried in the plethora of notes of the Introduzione. Lisz tilizes keft-hand figuration for his own response. The right hand of the Capriccio (No. 15 of Paganini) captures the arpeggiations of the violin, but the broken chord and staccato figures (the notes doubled) are Busoni’s improved Liszt. The heavy chordal application might remind some more of the Brahms treatment of periodic structure than Liszt. The Epilogo renders the music into plastic, resonant triplets in sweeping gestures.

—Gary Lemco

 

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