Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica etc.

Hamish Milne (Hyperion CDA67677)

7 October 2008 3.5 stars

BusoniHamish Milne admits, in his excellent booklet note for this disc of Busoni, that the composer's music often 'excites more admiration than affection'. The works on this disc are definitely from the more austere end of the spectrum and the half-hour long Fantasia Contrappunctistica, in particular, is not a piece for the faint-hearted.

The first work on the disc, just shy of half an hour in length, is Busoni's arrangement of Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam', one of his large scale organ works. In a typically Lisztian blurring of the the religious and the theatrical, the chorale comes not from a religious work, but from music composed by Meyerbeer for his opera Le prophete, sung by the three Anabaptists. Liszt can be forgiven, then, for not treating the theme with pious respect. In fact, in Busoni's expert arrangement, I found myself enjoying this a great deal. Split into three parts – there's actually a ten minute Adagio sandwiched between the Fantasy and the Fugue – it's a work that has a few moments of slightly empty rhetoric but which also has many passages of beauty and powerfully developed musical argument.

Milne's playing captures the darkness and seriousness of the Fantasy's opening and he's fully got the measure of the astonishingly broad array of colours Busoni's arrangement asks for; inevitably a more varied palette than Liszt himself would ever call upon for his own piano works. The central Adagio displays the composer at his most harmonically adventurous, and although it's difficult not to be suspicious of Liszt in devout, meditative mood – Milne points to an interesting paradox of this section's key, F sharp major, 'is often associated in Liszt with both sacred and profane love' – there are some irresistible moments. The drama returns in the wild rhetorical flourishes that introduce the Fugue, its subject a spiky, rhythmically spiced-up version of Meyerbeer's theme.

There's some variety in the Liszt and in the Fugue huge chords are contrasted with delicate contrapuntal filigree. However, the Mozart arrangement that follows – of the slow movement of the E flat Concerto, K.271 – comes as a welcome palate-cleanser. The distribution of all the notes between just two hands, though, makes for and arrangement that's a little leaden and lacking delicacy, in Milne's performance at least.

The Fantasia Contrappuntistica, as performed here in its 'edizione definitiva', immediately transports us into a sound-world entirely Busoni's own. Partly modelled on Bach's Art of Fugue, in this revised edition, Busoni adds a prelude based on an ancient chorale. This sets the scene admirably and simultaneously tells us that this is far from an act of mere musical pastiche. Throughout, impressive contrapuntal forms are interspersed with looser movements – between the first three fugues and the fourth, there are an 'Intermezzo', three variations and a cadenza – in all of which Busoni affords himself a little extra freedom, although the variations are still heavily contrapuntal. A mystical chorale, exploiting some experimental textures, is inserted between the final fugue and the finger-breaking stretta that brings the work to its close.
Gone is the sensuous spirituality of Liszt, replaced with a more intellectual devotion. The writing is virtuosic but not for its own sake, this is music of unmistakable conviction. As Milne puts it, 'easy listening it is certainly not', and the question has to be whether it really is possible to react to the music on anything but a sternly intellectual level. There's no denying Busoni's skill in terms of counterpoint but although it's not an easy ride, he is also successful in building up the tension over his complicated formal scheme.

Milne's belief in the music is evidently profound, and his strong advocacy – as well as astonishing command of the mindboggling textures Busoni produces – plays a strong part in persuading the listener too of the merit of this music. Ultimately, it's still mainly admiration for Busoni that one's left with; it's a deep admiration, though, for a composer of rare seriousness and intellect.

By Hugo Shirley