BUSONI: Fantasia Contrappuntistica; REGER: Sonata – Marlboro Festival performers – Sony

by | Oct 5, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BUSONI: Fantasia Contrappuntistica; REGER: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 116 – Peter Serkin and Richard Goode, piano/ Mischa Schneider, cello/ Peter Serkin, piano – Sony 92166, 60:30 [Distr. By ArkivMusic] ***:
Knotty music from the Marlboro Festival recorded 7 February 1964 (Busoni) and 10 September 1963 (Reger) in New York and Marlboro, Vermont, respectively. Each of these two composers venerated Bach, but neither of them enjoys Bach’s natural melodic gifts. Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) conceived his Fantasia Contrappuntistica in 1910, absorbed in the challenge of completing Bach’s last fugue from The Art of Fugue, a massive architectural structure that wants to exist as an abstraction, not beholden to any particular medium of expression. In terms of keyboard pragmatics, the work defies the performer to realize it, and even the 1921 edition for two pianos packs layers of sound in a way that surpasses Bach and his acolyte Liszt for sheer bravura and percussive power. And while each individual line of music has its logic and potency, the weight of the structure collapses because none of those lines possesses an innately melodic character. Even the Lutheran chorale “Ehre sei Gott in her Hoehe” must succumb to a quadruple fugue that combines the melody with three new subjects that lack “arioso” inspiration. The point is that Busoni can vary anything he touches, but he cannot make his own music sing. And so from beginning to end, the Fantasy assaults us with percussive ideas in the form of Three Fugues, intermezzo, Three Variations, cadenza, Fourth Fugue, and second chorale and stretta. As conscientiously as Goode and Serkin render this colossus, they cannot convince me that the piece commends itself beyond an intellectually aggressive exercise in polyphonic, even Renaissance-motet, invention.
The 1911 Reger Cello Sonata (nominally in A Minor) poses another example of a prolix rhetoric that can neither achieve the direct simplicity of Bach nor the lushly grateful sentiments in Brahms. Reger (1873-1916) exists as a conservative counterpart to Bruckner, given their background in organ literature and their penchant for counterpoint. Mischa Schneider (1904-1985) served as a distinguished member of the Budapest String Quartet between 1930- 1967. He sports a massive sonority and a romantic ethos, but even his natural effusion cannot redeem the loquaciousness on Reger’s first movement, which meanders over a few choice melodic tidbits strewn among quickly shifting harmonies. Reger’s model clearly points to the E Minor Sonata of Brahms; but aside from a gloomy affect, the Reger cannot luxuriate in melody. A touch of Mendelssohn’s elfin or Walpurgis-Night sentiment in pizzicati attaches to the Scherzo (Presto), but the treatment seems awkward and heavy-handed. The Largo enjoys some moments of sincere songfulness, but Reger typically buries his most direct emotions in thick polyphony, sending each instrument on its own way with occasional reconciliations. The last movement takes a page or two from the Brahms B-flat Piano Concerto, but the allusions tend to frustrate our hopes that Reger’s capacities can fly on their own merits.
I would recommend this disc for connoisseurs of elusive repertory, challenging, curiously idiomatic for their respective instruments, but forever marginal or adjunct to the mainstream of emotionally gratifying composition. As a tribute to the intellectual, experimental, and digital prowess of the participants at Marlboro, the disc provides a sterling example.
—Gary Lemco

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