Busoni Piano Concerto
Pietro Scarpini (piano); Bavarian Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík
First Hand Records FHR 64 69:58 mins
Recorded in Munich 52 years ago, and brought to CD thanks to tireless lobbying by the Italian musicologist Antonio Latanza, this performance is a heroic attempt to honour a work whose Berlin premiere in 1904 was greeted with howls of critical derision. ‘Frightful’ and ‘pandemonium let loose’ were comments from contemporary reviewers. The flamboyant Busoni himself described it surprisingly humbly. ‘I endeavoured with this work to gather together the results of my first period of manhood, and it represents the actual conclusion of that period,’ he wrote. ‘The proportions and contrasts are carefully distributed and…there was nothing accidental in it.’ Its five movements include a Tarantella and an evocation of Vesuvius erupting, and a male-voice choir is woven into the finale to counterpoint the piano; the effect of the whole is of a symphony with piano obbligato, rather than a concerto in the conventional sense of the word.
It opens on strings and woodwind in a Brahmsian vein, with the piano entry having a grave, chordal simplicity, and when it gets into gear Pietro Scarpini’s keyboard virtuosity is formidable. But despite the composer’s intention it’s hard to discern any structure, either within movements or between them: by turns sombre, quirky and exuberant, the music swirls in a sub-Rachmaninov way, and in the last analysis adds up to a lot of fire and thunder signifying nothing. Busoni’s brilliance shone brightest when it was anchored in the Bach chorales he so majestically arranged, but here it’s simply rudderless.