Sunday, March 10, 2019

A New Recording of Busoni’s Piano Concerto

courtesy of Naxos of America

Ferruccio Busoni’s Opus 39 piano concerto is one of those great monsters of the keyboard repertoire that tends to be more a subject of conversation than the object of a listening experience. Composed between 1902 and 1904, the roughly 70-minute duration of the composition brings composers like Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler to mind. Yet, while Busoni could evoke Romantic rhetoric along with the best of them, he tended to compose with a disciplined foundation of Classical traditions. Nevertheless, this concerto is structured in five movements, whose uneven durations bring the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven to mind while the decision to bring in a men’s chorus for the final movement seems to serve as a “response” to the “call” of Beethoven’s Opus 125 “Choral” symphony in D minor.

I first encountered the concerto in my early days of building a new collection around compact discs. By now most people are probably familiar with the story that the idea of the CD was implemented the way it was with the objective of providing an uninterrupted listening experience of Opus 125. The German cpo label may have released their recording of a 1986 recording session of the Busoni concerto made by Bayerischer Rundfunk with a similar objective in mind. Having read a fair amount about Busoni and struggled to get several of his piano compositions under my fingers, it was hard for me to resist buying that recording. It remains in my collection, and I continue to be satisfied with it.

Nevertheless, the concerto has received relatively little attention in the United States. As a result, the release this Friday of a new recording of the concerto featuring pianist Kirill Gerstein performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo definitely deserves attention. This will be the first recording of the concerto with an American orchestra since Garrick Ohlsson performed it with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra 30 years ago. As usual, has created a Web page for pre-ordering this new recording.

My now having two recordings of Busoni’s piano concerto may remind some of an old Japanese joke about the two kinds of fools: the one who has never climbed Mount Fuji and the one who has climbed Mount Fuji twice. To be honest, I doubt that there is little I can do to compare Gerstein with Volker Banfield, the pianist on my cpo recording. On the other hand I am much more familiar with Gerstein’s repertoire, which I have found to be both broad and frequently adventurous.

I have therefore been impressed with how he rises to the many technical challenges that Busoni’s concerto raises. Similarly, I appreciate that the recording is based on masters recorded during performances before audiences in Boston’s Symphony Hall, which took place on March 10 and 11 of 2017. Finally, because I already have some familiarity of Oramo’s tastes in adventurous repertoire, I can say that I came away satisfied with the chemistry between soloist and conductor that can be inferred from listening to this recording.

While I have never heard the Ohlsson recording, I have had the good fortune to listen to him play some of Busoni’s more challenging compositions for solo piano. Now I have another pianist whose approach to Busoni definitely interests me. I have no idea whether Gerstein may bring this concerto to a San Francisco Symphony program; but I would not mind his returning to San Francisco to give another solo piano recital, perhaps one in which he will expand his repertoire to Busoni’s “Fantasia contrappuntistica.”

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