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Busoni: Elegien; Toccata etc

Peter Donohoe (piano) (Chandos)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Elegien, BV 249 & BV 252 – Berceuse; Toccata; Sonatina super Carmen; Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (Bach BWV 564)
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20237   70:57 mins


Best known as a champion arranger of Bach’s chorale preludes, Ferruccio Busoni is little known as a composer tout court, and Peter Donohoe’s selection brings some rarely performed music to light. As Antony Beaumont observes in his liner note, Busoni was in many ways the odd man out among late Romanticism’s pianistic big beasts: he seldom performed his own
works in public, and when he did it was always with spur-of-the-moment alterations.

And if some of the works here make uncomfortable listening – despite Donohoe’s keyboard brilliance – that is because Busoni himself disdained aural comfort: he was more interested in pushing out the boundaries of tonality than he was in purveying seductive listening. He was ahead of his time in anticipating what Webern and Messiaen would do.

The seven Elegien are a case in point. Each was dedicated to one of his students, and one can sense his didactic urge: in only one of them – an intriguingly ornate arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ – does his uncompromising default-mode rigour relax into conviviality. Invoking the example of Frescobaldi – whom with Bach, Beethoven and Liszt he ranked himself in apostolic succession – Busoni turns the Toccata BV 287 into a rugged obstacle course for the ears.

But the Toccata BV 29, being a transcription of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564, allows Donohoe’s artistry to flower. The first movement has a majestically cathedral sound, and the Adagio has grave beauty, with the Fugue flying exhilaratingly high. In Sonatina super Carmen – often given as an encore – the clouds roll away and the sun comes out, as Busoni and Donohoe play exuberantly to the gallery.


Michael Church