When they are so easily available for free, the opportunities on YouTube don’t leave much excuse for not taking advantage of them, even though in one particular case at least, the musical presentation is puzzling or unidiomatic or off-putting. But even there, gradually, the realization sets in—the realization that one hears the distillation of a lifetime’s experience, the transcendence of prodigious youth, and the metamorphic rejection of romantic inflation, indulgence, and sentimentality.
Not to put too fine a point upon it, certain performances of particular Chopin pieces are striking in their antipathetic refusal of obvious appeal. Right in the center of the Golden Age of romantic pianism is a repudiation of its salient qualities by the greatest player of his time, Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924), himself a modernizing radical advocate of “Young Classicism.” He was a musician in whom there was little if anything of the salon.
The old acoustic recordings made in London for British Columbia in 1922 take up only slightly less than 26 minutes—grudging and distorted minutes, such as they are. Yet these discs can suggest much to us about the pianist whose name was legend. He was once so well established that, during his last years in Berlin, he was “Der Busoni,” as in “the bank” or “the university.” Yes, he had attained a pinnacle, but while we look at (or up) to that, we might also ask ourselves what an Italian was doing as an institution in Germany. And if we could answer that question, then perhaps we would understand something about Ferruccio Busoni. We would know that he was “always that way”—always gifted, always set apart, always split between worlds, times, and cultures.
Busoni’s few and invaluable recordings were not made in circumstances that encouraged or even suited him, and these recordings have often been heard as woefully lacking in representing the greatest pianist since Anton Rubinstein, if not since Franz Liszt himself. The unambitious repertory was calculated for commercial appeal, not for the historical record. If the man had been given his due, we would have had a Goldberg Variations in his own edition, a Hammerklavier Sonata, an Opus 111, and some of Busoni’s own compositions and transcriptions. But that was not thought to be a viable project, and Busoni gave up his hopes for the medium. His competing piano rolls, by the way, are no more reliable than the unsatisfactory piano rolls of others, if not less so.
So we are not going to hear Busoni’s own version of his famous transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the second violin partita (except for his one uniquely effective piano roll), or his transcription of the Bach Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major; Michelangeli and Horowitz have to serve in his place. But such works led to Busoni, in a famous anecdote, being introduced in the White House as “the famous pianist, Mr. Busoni—and this is Mrs. Bach-Busoni!” He led a hyphenated life, you might say. Somewhere among Bach-Liszt, Bach-Tausig, Bach-Siloti, and Bach-Busoni, there must be room for breath.
But the Busoni discs are highly suggestive, even so—they are not obvious statements. As for example, the two Bach renderings imply more than they assert. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in C major from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier is more than a late-19th-century take on Bach—much more. Rather than being a time-bound expression, it is a timeless one, understated and creating its own reality. In no obvious sense is it an example of romantic pianism, but rather one of modern vision and rendition. The Bach-Busoni Organ Prelude is a refusal of bombast, and in its effortless differentiation of the left hand from the right, a quiet assertion of a four-dimensional treatment of Bach, our contemporary. In another vein altogether, the Beethoven-Busoni Écossaises are relaxed dances, which the performer has actually recomposed.
If the Chopin examples are not the best of these recordings, they are the most challenging, for there is nothing in them of the “Chopinzee” effect. The taffy-pull rubati and various crooning, swooning effects that we know from various historic recordings of Chopin are nowhere to be found in the Busoni orbit. The Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7, is played twice, in an attempt to solidify its fragmentary nature, perhaps. The “Black Key” Étude, Op. 10, No. 5, is recorded twice. The “Wrong Note” Étude, Op. 25, No. 5, receives a spirited treatment—clearly its challenge appealed to Busoni. The Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2, is treated in what was in 1922 unmistakably an alien rendering. We are beginning to learn that, if Bach is timeless, so is Chopin, as both of them are exposed to the dehistoricizing treatment unique to Busoni.
And finally there is the matter of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, presented in an abbreviated version. This recording is stirring and perhaps suggests the possibilities that were snuffed when Busoni quit his unhappy visits to the studios of Columbia. But one of Busoni’s pupils, Edward Weiss, declared that this recording is what Busoni sounded like and how he played, and I believe it. Suffice it to say, the disc deserves attention, for Busoni did not regard Liszt with any of the condescension of modern ideology, but rather as Liszt regarded himself: as a comprehensive musician of the past, present, and future, all in one.
So these discs are provocations of wonder, but in another sense than the sensational Brunswick acoustics of Josef Hofmann. I must insist that Busoni admired Hofmann, Lhévinne, Godowsky, and Paderewski, but that is just the point. His sound-image does not at all correlate to theirs. All four of those men would have been quite comfortable with the Chopin nocturne that Busoni presented as something strange or estranged or made strange.
The Busoni recordings point us not toward the musical environment of an evaporating romanticism in the 1920’s, but rather toward Busoni’s protean crosscultural life and his anticipations of the future. The lag of the Golden Age was an illusion from which Busoni, in effect, had disabused himself by living through romanticism and coming out on the other side of it. And he tried to come out on the other side of himself.
Busoni was altogether too intelligent to be a tireless replicator of the compositions of others, and yet that was how he made his living. In another aspect of his being, his Germanic education had shut him off from the obvious Italian heritage until he was shocked by the brilliant achievement of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1893. He had frustrating experiences teaching at conservatories in Helsinki, Moscow, and Boston, which were another form of the limitations of musical possibility. He did not find his niche until he centered himself in Berlin—he was in Switzerland during the Great War—and he became not only a master teacher and a composer, but a musical visionary as well as a progressive conductor of new music. To Busoni, the past, the present, and the future were simultaneous and free.
The most obvious product of Busoni’s maturity is the Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39, which with its ironical passages, its mysticism, and its romantic gigantism sounds like but is not “Mahler’s Piano Concerto.” This imposing work is easily accessed today through several impressive recordings. But this did not satisfy the restless Busoni, who was always after more. The Sonatinas for piano and the Fantasia Contrappuntistica arranged for one and two keyboards are but some of Busoni’s best creations. But the thirst for more led Busoni also into speculating about a new sense of tonal possibilities and a “Young Classicism” that was his personal take on the eternally manifest presence of musical being.
Toward the end of his life in 1924, Busoni was living in multiple realities, teaching, coaching, composing, consulting, envisioning, and conducting. I doubt that anyone in the musical world was in contact with so many people as he was. His best piano pupil was probably Egon Petri, who did a lot of teaching and recording himself in his later days in America. To know Busoni and to know Liszt, Petri’s recording of the Liszt-Busoni version of the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is mandatory. And Petri’s other recordings, particularly of late Beethoven, are quite valuable, both in themselves and for what they suggest about Busoni. There is quite a story about Petri’s rendition of the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Books I and II, Op. 35. When he played it for Busoni’s circle, the Master said, “Petri plays this better than I do!” Years later, Petri walked into a studio and took off his coat. Nineteen minutes later, he arose, put on his coat and left. That recording was published without any editing at all, and it is still available.
But the last obsession of Busoni’s life was Doktor Faust, his unfinished masterwork of a visionary opera—finished first by a pupil, and latterly by a scholar. Doktor Faust has had success in our time—as in the Zurich production with Thomas Hampson—for it is not time-bound, as the best music never is. Busoni’s operatic sense is modern and presentational—he has nothing in common with Puccini or Italian verismo. This take on the Faust legend is rather from the man who gave serious attention to Schoenberg and who taught Kurt Weill and so many others. This is the image of Faust as the trope of a lifetime—a modern and prophetic interpretation that owes little to Goethe, less to Gounod, and nothing to sentiment.
All in all, taking Busoni’s measure is hard—possibly impossible. But one thing is clear to me: We owe him a lot for his spirited defense of transcription. He wanted to justify Liszt—and himself. After all, music itself is the transcription of an idea!
So Ferruccio Busoni was and is a special case, and even the worst thing that can be said about him would not damage him or his unique if limited reputation. As he was effortlessly singular and interesting, so he always will be.