Although critics tend to single out his marathon Piano Concerto in five movements and his magnum opus, the opera Doktor Faust, like Franz Liszt, the vast majority of the Florence-born Feruccio Busoni’s compositional output is devoted to work for the solo piano. It is indeed appropriate that the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin who specialises in obscure and difficult scores has now turned his gaze on this virtuoso and teacher.
Perhaps more than any other composer this side of Henze, Busoni has brought an ingenious balance to bear between Teutonic counterpoint and sunshine and passion from the Mediterranean. Whilst Busoni’s philosophical ideas in the New Aesthetic pair him with the likes of Nietzsche, his musical composition is perhaps not so forward thinking – like Mahler, he still teeters on the edge of tonality whilst suggesting the ideas of Paul Hindemith’s sonatas of the 1930s.
Even now pianists, if they approach Busoni, tend to focus on his Bach transcriptions rather than upon original works – though even here we find witty appropriations of English folksong (Greensleeves) and Bizet’s Carmen. Very little of this work has been favoured by modern pianists. The major exception is the Adelaide-born and Dutch-based contrapuntal specialist Geoffrey Douglas Madge who won the prestigious Edison award for his live six CD traversal (Philips). This set has unfortunately been long absent from the active catalogue though room still remains for both Hamelin and Madge to co-exist. For while Hamelin aims for a more analytical approach to the music as offered by the intimacy of the recording studio, Madge’s live traversal offers a greater palette of pianistic colours even if there is the intrusion of coughs and shuffling from the Holland Festival’s audience.
After his praised concerto recording with Sir Mark Elder, this is highly appropriate musical terrain for Hamelin to explore, and adding Hyperion’s excellent recording into the mix, makes for an excellent and involving listening experience.