BUSONI: Piano Concerto, Op. 39 — Gunnar Johansen, piano/ NDR Symphony Orchestra and Men’s Chorus, Hamburg/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt — Music&Arts

by | Aug 23, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BUSONI: Piano Concerto, Op. 39 – Gunnar Johansen, piano/ NDR
Symphony Orchestra and Men’s Chorus, Hamburg/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt

Music&Arts CD-1163  68:25 (Distrib. Albany)****:

As perplexing as it is mesmerizing, the Busoni Piano Concerto (1909) is
a bold, ungainly work which features a five-movement structure and a
final chorus based on a poem by an obscure Danish poet, Adam G.
Oehlenschlager, a “Hymn to Allah.”  Perhaps Danish pianist Gunnar
Johansen, performing in Hamburg 16 January 1956 is the artist to
clarify its occult meaning, although there are moments when “obsession”
seems to rule the musical figures. Besides having Beethoven and Mahler
as possible models for his huge architecture, Busoni might well have
had Scriabin as a model, who himself employed a hymn to art at the
conclusion of his First Symphony. The first, third, and fifth movements
of Busoni’s Concerto form a kind of geometry for the piece; and the
tempo indications for the first movement, Prologo e Introito, could
suggest a liturgical correspondence to an instrumental requiem.
Employing a massive keyboard technique, not far from Brahms’s demands
for the B-flat Concerto, but more akin to the spirit of Liszt, Busoni
seems to have layered the textures of the concerto, again invoking
names like Mahler and Bruckner. The feeling of the Concerto is lyrical
and rhapsodic, especially in its Italianate waltz-filigree and the
large Tarantella fourth movement. Diabolism and sentimentality merge in
this anomalous work; perhaps we could say Truth and Poetry, in the
manner of Goethe’s autobiography. Certainly the opus is Busoni’s
musical self-portrait, at once antiquated and avantgarde, learned in a
contrapuntal style and boldly mocking of traditional harmony and
concerto etiquette.

Those who recall Johansen’s monumental survey of the works of Bach and
Liszt for 1960s LP will not be surprised at his colossal ingestion of
Busoni’s Concerto in one fell gulp. A pupil of Egon Petri, Busoni’s
star pupil who premiered the work under the composer’s direction,
Johansen comes to this repertory honestly, displaying the monster paw
and the velvet glove at once. The actual pacing of the Concerto seems
fairly orthodox, given alternate readings by John Ogden and Noel
Mewton-Wood. Conductor Schmidt-Isserstedt was always one for
programming those pieces which push the musical and conventional
envelope, and his accompaniment never misses a beat. Passages requiring
the piano to blend with horn, oboe, flute, and English horn are
perfectly balanced for gossamer effect, or for Lisztian malice, when
required.  Mono sound for the period is quite solid, and the liner
notes by Jeffrey Wagner, working from reminiscences of Johansen and
Busoni scholar Freidrich Schnapp, are most informative.

–Gary Lemco

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