Ferrucio Busoni (1846 -1924)


Ferruccio Busoni, the Italian-Austrian composer-pianist has has been called 'Doctor Faustus of the Keyboard'. His greatest pianistic achievements were in blockbuster works such as Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' and Liszt's B minor sonata, for he brought a new 'monumental' style to interpretation, one which drew on pedalling of unparalled colouristic variety. Technically, Busoni was virtually infallible. His pupil Percy Grainger once said that Busoni never played 'wrong' notes - not once in all of the concert performances he had attended!

Busoni's repertoire was enormous, embracing virtually every composer from Bach through to Liszt. The monumental Bach-Busoni edition in seven volumes bears witness to the painstaking care and devotion of Busoni's scholarship, though his masterful transcriptions of Bach will always remain controversial because they turn the piano into an organ

Though one cannot do full justice to Busoni's pianistic achievements here, it is worth noting that he was one of the first great champions of Alkan, and that his late performances in London and Berlin of the great Mozart concertos broke new ground and greatly helped the Mozart revival in this centuary. Busoni's 'Mozart Aphorisms show him to be one of the most perceptive of all who have written on the great master. Busoni's Chopin playing was controversial by virtue of his refusal to bow to convention. Not for him the standard approach to rubato, balancing and textual fidelity! His favourite Chopin included the Preludes and Etudes. Busoni largely ignored both Schumann and Mendelssohn in later years, but it is interesting to note that he still retained an affection for Weber and that in the last years of his life he turned to the John Field Nocturnes for stimulation.

Along with Bach, Busoni was especially authoritative on Beethoven and Liszt. He performed Beethoven's Emperor concerto under Gustav Mahler and it was a work which he was particularly renowned for .In the music of Liszt Busoni was incomparable. He was a tireless advocate for the mighty Hungarian, producing a legendary series of marathon all-Liszt concerts in Berlin which caused a sensation. To perform all twelve transcendantal etudes and the B minor sonata with technical perfection and authority in one programme required superhuman reserves of energy and enormous control.

We can only gasp in awe today when we read lists of Busoni's repertoire and recital programmes. They recall something of the stamina and missionary zeal evidenced by the programme planning of the nineteenth centuary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein.

The younger Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein once remarked that Busoni was similar to Svatoslav Richter as a pianist. Others have commented that Busoni's Bach matched Glenn Gould's whilst his Liszt was similar to Vladimir Horowitz's!

Whatever his playing was like, we can be sure that the few surviving recordings which can be heard today on the Pearl label do not do him justice. Though the playing is impressive the repertoire is of short encore type pieces. To use primitive recordingTo use primitive recording equipment to capture Busoni's monumental art would seem as difficult as attempting to contain the entire Atlantic ocean in a milkbottle! Ultimately Busoni remains enigmatic and God-like as a pianist. As the years pass, so does his reputation and image grow. He is an artist who will always remain fascinating and mysterious.

Murray McLachlan