Monday, January 9, 2012

Busoni - Piano Concerto in C Major

Ferruccino Busoni (1866 - 1924) was an Italian virtuoso pianist, writer, teacher, composer and conductor. He was a child prodigy and had his first public recital at the age of seven.  He conducted one of his own compositions for choir when he was twelve. He wrote most of his compositions for the piano,  but he also wrote some pieces for voice and opera. He was also an active transciber and arranger and transcribed many of Bach's organ pieces for solo piano and also transcribed Bach's Chaconne For Solo Violin for piano.  He also transcribed pieces for piano and orchestra and four-hand piano.  Throughout his adult life he traveled around the world giving recitals and concerts, including extended tour of North America. While Italian, he made his home base at Berlin late in his life.  He was much better known as a pianist and conductor than composer throughout his life.

The Piano Concerto In C Major  is Busoni's masterpiece and culmination of his first period as a composer.  His compositions after the concerto saw him condense his ideas and compose works in a different tone and form. But there's nothing about the concerto that is condensed. It is in five movements, takes over an hour to perform, is written for a huge orchestra with male chorus.  Concertos for solo instrument and orchestra tend to fall within two categories. Concertos such as the traditional Classic Concerto pits the soloist at odds with the orchestra, with the conflict coming in varying degrees according to the composer and nature of the work.  The other type  places the piano as another member of the orchestra, a work for orchestra with piano obbligato.  Henri Litollf's Concerto Symphoniques fall in this category. Busoni's concerto is of the orchestra with piano obbligato type.

The piano is hardly silent at all through the entire work, and the music places extreme demands on the soloist technically, physically, and musically.  The orchestra part is no less demanding for the players and conductor. Due to its length and level of difficulty, the concerto has always been on the periphery of the repertoire. After the premiere of the work in 1904 with Busoni as soloist, his students were pretty much the only advocates for the work.  In the late 1950's the pianist John Ogdon championed the piece and it is occasionally performed, more rarely recorded.  Ogdon made a recording of it that is held to be definitive by many.

Busoni sketched a picture that symbolized the aspects of his concerto. He had an artist refine the picture and had it published with the score.  Busoni himself wrote about this pictorial representation of his work in a letter to his wife:

'It is the idea of my piano concerto in one picture
and it is represented by architecture, landscape and
symbolism. The three buildings are the first, third and
fifth movements. In between come the two 'living' ones;
Scherzo and Tarantelle; the first, a nature-play,
represented by a miraculous flower and bird; the second
by Vesuvius and cypress trees. The sun rises over the
entrance; a seal is fastened to the door of the end
building. The winged being quite at the end is taken
from Oehlenschläger's chorus and represents mysticism
in nature.'

Adam Oehlenschläger was the Dutch poet and playwright that wrote the text that Busoni set to music in the last movement of the work. Busoni originally was writing an 'evening of music' based on the poet's drama Alladin, Or The Magic Lamp.  He never completed the work, but he did compose music for the final scene in the cave of the play. This is what eventually made its way into the concerto's last movement. As strange as it may seem to the casual listener to hear a men's chorus sing praises to Allah in a concerto written by an Italian composer, Busoni thought the words and the music conveyed the serenity he wanted to evoke in the final movement.  Busoni had used some of the themes from the music he did write for Alladin in the first movement, and the inclusion of the music and words in the finale rounded off the work to Busoni's satisfaction, regardless of how it may appear to others.

The work is divided into 5 main sections, with further divisions in the third movement:

I. Prologo E Introito (prologue and introduction)- The orchestra introduces the music, the piano enters and clangs its way up and down the keyboard playing chords.
II. Pezzo Giocoso (playful piece) -   This movement is something like a strange scherzo and begins lightly,  and turns into a strange dance. A Neapolitan sailor song is quoted,  the movement ends strangely and quietly.
III Pezzo Serioso (serious piece) - Made up of four parts:
  • Introductio (introduction) - A lamentation, ending with the piano and orchestra playing very softly.
  • Prima Pars (main part) -  The dirge continues with momentary light showing through the darkness.
  • Altera Pars (altered part) -  As the title suggests, the theme is altered  and extended.
  • Ultima Pars (final part) -  This entire movement and its four parts can be looked at as a preparation for the choral finale. 
IV All' Italiana (Tarantella) -  The Tarantella is an Italian dance that folklore says is caused by the bite of the Tarantula spider. A wild dance for the soloist and orchestra.
V Cantico - A beginning that's slow and solemn gives way to reminisces of other themes heard previously that lead up to the male choir's singing:
(English translation)
The Pillars of Rock begin to make soft and gentle music

Lift up your hearts to the Power Eternal,
Draw ye to Allah nigh, witness his work.
Earth has its share of rejoicing and sorrow,
Firm the foundations that hold up the world.
Thousands and thousands of years march relentlessly,
Show forth in silence His glory, His might,
Flashing immaculate, splendid and fast they stand,
Time cannot shake them, yea time without end.

Hearts flamed in ecstasy, hearts turned to dust again,
Playfully life and death staked each his claim,
Yet in mute readiness patiently tarrying,
Splendid and mighty both, for evermore.
Lift up your hearts to the Power Eternal,
Draw ye to Allah nigh, witness his work.
Fully regenerate now is the world of yore,
Praising its Maker e'en unto the end.

This concerto is so large and vast, it is like a world unto itself.  It may always be on the edge of the repertoire, any performance of it will no doubt be an event over and above the normal concert fare. It is a mysterious, incredible creation of a profound musical mind.

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