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Author Topic: Busoni  (Read 351 times)
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« on: December 05, 2016, 01:00:01 pm »

As I recall very few pianists could tackle its demands until Ogden revived it in that historic recording from 1967.

It is frequently asserted that the "extreme" length of this concerto contributed to its lack of popularity in the decades following its premiere. [The suggestion being that it was too long for audiences to sit through, rather than being over-taxing for the soloist - making it more of a 'programming' issue, rather than a 'performability' question.]
Whilst I guess that this is broadly the case, there were at least two dozen performances during the composer's lifetime, mostly involving him either as pianist or conductor - that's an average of a little over one a year (I've not read reviews, although I recall that they were rather mixed for the première); over the following three decades, performances were rather less frequent, the majority being given by Busoni's pupil Egon Petri and most taking place in Germany, UK and US (Petri played it four times in UK in 1934 alone) and the half dozen performances that took place in 1966 were atypical of its subsequent fate. I think that it gets rather more outings these days, helped along by pianists such as Peter Donohoe, Marc-André Hamelin and Carlo Grante never losing any opportunity to perform it.

I agree that, for all that the piano part is taxing, had it been impractically so, far fewer pianists would have recorded it since John Ogdon did almost half a century ago (and there's been quite a clutch of recordings).

No one complains about the length of time audience members are expected to sit through Mahler's symphonies, of which eight out of ten occupy more than one hour - or indeed Bruckner's, of which nos. 2 - 5 and 7 - 9 do likewise.

Yet is this really the case?  Both of the Brahms PCs - surely the most popular prototype for a 'high romantic' piano concerto - run to 53-55 minutes, depending on who is on the piano stool. The margin of difference between this and the Busoni concerto is almost insignificant, surely?
Absolutely right! Whether the fact that the Busoni exceeds one hour raises any kind of psychological barrier in the minds of some might be open to question, but the facts that its content (a) is readily absorbable by anyone familiar with the concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and Tchaikovsky and (b) embraces popularity with abandon when its suits Busoni to do so make one wonder why it's not more frequently performed. The other factor is, of course, the use of the male chorus whose members sit patiently for around an hour before their big moment comes.

As for the "demands" of the Busoni concerto, most of negative criticism of the work in its early years was exactly - that the orchestra has the lion's share of the motivic material, and the pianist is slogging away in the background for much of the time?  This is not to talk the piece down at all - it's a 'concerto' in a more baroque sense, like a 'concerto grosso', than the flashy showmanship of the composer-pianist-soloist genre of piano concerto (of which Rach 2 is a good example, from the same period as Busoni's)
Again, spot on! - although the Concerto's not short of moments of gran bravura. Shura Cherkassky was once asked why he hadn't / whether he might add it to his repertoire and said that he'd studied it and worked on it but decided against it because he didn't exactly relish spending the first hour accompanying the orchestra and then the final minutes accompanying the choir as well! Pity, that; I'd have loved to hear his take on it (as I'm sure would many others). Another pianist whom I've always regretted never having performed it was the one who introduced John Ogdon to it when first they met at what's now RNCM in Manchester; he was working on it in a practice room when the then 9 year old John, who'd been listening outside, entered and asked what the music was and, when told, declared that he would like to play it one day (well, I suppose that there must be legions of 9 year olds who'd relish the opportunity to learn Busoni's Concerto having just listened to someone practising bits of it!). The pianist of whom I speak is (or rather sadly was) Ronald Stevenson.
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