This is a hefty collection, and yet I believe it barely scratches the surface of what Busoni (1866-1924) left behind, in terms of "transcriptions and paraphrases." Categorizing all of this music is a challenge. Busoni said (and it is quoted in the booklet notes), "Man cannot create, he can merely digest what is found on earth." (Sounds like the law of conservation of matter!) Suffice it to say that Busoni digested some of these works more than others. Loosely speaking, those that were digested more thoroughly bear his name, and those that were digested less thoroughly bear another composer's name, although it is to be understood that the work's title should be followed with "transcribed by Busoni."
For example, the Chamber-Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, although it uses Bizet's themes exclusively (in the opposite order that they appear in the opera!), is a composition by Busoni because it follows the model of the 19th-century operatic paraphrase as made popular by Liszt and Thalberg, for example. Bizet provided the ingredients; Busoni provided the blender, and the thumb to turn it on. On the other hand, I am not sure why Busoni gets first authorship, if you will, of the six Chorale Preludes by Brahms, since these seem to be fairly straightforward piano arrangements of what originally was organ music. Bach's famous Chaconne for solo violin (from the Partita in D minor) arguably required a more strenuous intervention from Busoni to turn it into a highly virtuosic work for piano, yet Bach's name comes first here. I guess one could argue that, because both Bach and Busoni are dead, it doesn't matter anyway, but somehow that doesn't seem very fair!
Were Busoni alive today, some might be tempted to refer to some of these works as "remixes." After Mendelssohn takes a motive from that composer's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream and turns it into a finger-busting etude. In the Variant on Chopin's Prelude in G, he rather mischievously exchanges what the left and right hands were playing in the original. In the Mephisto Waltz #1, Busoni takes Liszt's orchestral score and attempts to make that composer's piano version of the same (which followed it) more like the orchestral original. One gets the impression that Busoni was quite a tinkerer, and that if he were to be left alone in a room for five minutes, the furniture would be rearranged by the time the host returned!
Another facet of Busoni is presented here, and that is Busoni the editor. In the Great Fugue he attempts to complete what death prevented Bach from completing in The Art of Fugue. Similarly, while Franz Liszt played his Figaro Fantasy in 1843, he never got around to writing it down. And so, working from the incomplete manuscript, Busoni completed it in high Lisztian style. One can't tell this isn't completely the work of Liszt unless one is told otherwise.
Pianist Holger Groschopp is the level-headed ringmaster of this crazy piano circus. Clearly in sync with Busoni, he glides through the music's technical difficulties yet disdains making a spectacle of himself. Contrapuntal lines are clearly articulated, and when the music needs mass, Groschopp supplies it without pounding. When it needs delicacy, his fingers do the dancing. Let some other pianist bring down Carnegie Hall. This is intelligent, modest virtuosity – my favorite kind.
These CDs were recorded between 2000 and 2008 and appear to have been released separately. This box, however, is a money-saving proposition, and it includes thorough annotations by the pianist. The only problem is that Capriccio reversed the contents of the first and second discs. It is disconcerting to expect Carmen and to hear a Bach fugue instead! The music is all here, though, so no great harm done. The engineers keep the piano sounding clear and cool.
Busoni is one of those composers whom it is hard to pin down, but it's fun to try, and this collection is both imposing and entertaining – a fun but never dumb way to spend a Sunday afternoon!
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle