"The Monster Concerto"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 9. 2012
Every ten years or so, Ferruccio Busoni, the secret emperor of European music at the turn of the twentieth century, moves in from the margins of the repertory, momentarily seizes the attention of New York concertgoers, and then retreats into semi-obscurity, like Friedrich Barbarossa going to sleep beneath his mountain. In 1992, the New York City Opera presented Doktor Faust, Busoni’s phosphorescent magnum opus, which remained unfinished upon his death, in 1924. A decade ago, the same opera had a brief run at the Met—to date, the company’s only venture into Busoni’s unorthodox realm. This season, famished Busoni obsessives are feasting on the composer’s mammoth Piano Concerto, which Piers Lane and the American Symphony performed at Carnegie Hall in December, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The work will return to Carnegie next May, during the Spring for Music festival, with Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian archmagus of the piano, joining the New Jersey Symphony.
The slipperiness of Busoni’s creative personality, his way of donning many masks, is frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. A cosmopolitan who never belonged fully to one country or culture, he was born near Florence in 1866; spent his childhood in Trieste; studied in Vienna, Graz, and Leipzig; lived in Helsinki, Moscow, Boston, and New York; settled in Berlin and resettled in Bologna; spent much of the First World War in Zurich (where he met both Joyce and Lenin); and then returned to Berlin, where he died. He won early fame as a piano virtuoso, enrapturing crowds with his cool brilliance and irritating critics with his willful reconfigurations of canonical works. As a teacher of composition, he influenced everyone from the avant-gardist Edgard Varèse to the populist Kurt Weill. In his pamphlet Sketch of a New Aesthetic Music, Busoni called for a return to classicism while speculating about microtonal writing and electronic instruments. He was, in some ways, the prophet of a future that never came to pass, yet his idiosyncratic pluralism now seems strangely contemporary, as if he had anticipated the entire course of the century and tried to resolve its contradictions.
The Piano Concerto, which Busoni completed in 1904, is atypical of him, to the extent that any of his works are typical. In his final two decades, Busoni favored subdued colors and shadowy forms, his music always on the point of vanishing over the horizon. The concerto, by contrast, is a gaudy, unapologetically over-the-top piece, stuffed with references to nineteenthcentury Romantic styles. It opens with a pastiche of Brahms and then moves on to Beethoven-like strutting themes, Lisztian arpeggios, brooding spells of Wagnerian orchestration, delicate Chopinesque interludes, depressive Schumannesque detours, and madcap Rossinian crescendos. As if this weren’t enough, the final movement has a male chorus intoning lines from Adam Oehlenschläger’s 1805 play, Aladdin—a hymn to Allah, no less. Mahlerian in scope, the work is in five movements and goes on for well over an hour.
Alfred Brendel was within his rights when he called the concerto “monstrously overwritten.” Yet it is also a remarkable feat of controlled chaos. From an almost random heap of materials, Busoni fashions a solid, symmetrical structure, with a large slow movement at the center, two bustling scherzos on either side, and solemn-toned utterances as bookends. (The published score is decorated with an etching inspired by Busoni’s own visualization of the piece: an array of temples interspersed with cypress trees and exotic birds, and Vesuvius erupting in the background. It looks like what might have appeared on the back of the dollar bill if the Art Nouveau movement had taken over the United States Mint.) Busoni said that he could answer for every note in the score: a bold claim, since the notes run into uncountable thousands, yet persuasive.
At the same time, there is something magnificently unserious about the work. Its excesses—the piling on of disparate elements, the climaxes upon climaxes, the accelerations of accelerations—are surely deliberate. You suspect that Busoni is mocking the bravura Romantic concerto as it emerged in the later nineteenth century, and, more widely, satirizing the gargantuan, post-Wagnerian apparatus of the music of his day. Like his contemporaries Mahler and Strauss, Busoni took an interest in Nietzsche, and the Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music includes an extended passage from Beyond Good and Evil—one imagining a “more evil and mysterious music,” which “knows how to roam among great, beautiful, lonely beasts of prey.” At his best, Busoni matches the tone of Nietzsche’s later writing, with its unstable bombast, its selfcancelling ironies, its love of dancing figures, its prophetic flights and apocalyptic crashes.
A Zarathustra spirit animates the concerto’s fourth movement, “All’ Italiana (Tarantella),” which may be the most purely kinetic music written between the retirement of Rossini and the heyday of Stravinsky. It has the mood of a street festival turned violent. The beginning is emblematic: nocturnal whispers in the strings and winds, darkly churning figures in the lower register of the piano. The score urges the performers to go for broke: there are passages marked “audaciously,” “frenziedly,” “raging,” “impolitely” (the last for a single-voiced piano line pounded out with both hands). Snare drum and tambourine drive the rhythms; wrong notes intrude on popular vamps. The coda, marked “La Stretta,” begins as an homage to Rossini and veers toward Dada, with crazed fragments of cadenzas dropped into the mayhem. (Think of Liszt and Chopin on parade floats, playing simultaneously.) It’s profoundly funny, vaguely frightening music—a Nietzschean dance on the edge of a cliff. It also renders Liberace unnecessary.
In the finale, as the orchestra and the chorus deliver their hymnal peroration, the piano disappears for a stretch. When I asked Hamelin about the experience of performing the concerto—he has done it more than twenty times—he told me, “It's an especially joyful feeling to be allowed to be almost completely silent during the fifth movement, this after having had your blood pressure raised several points during the Tarantella.” The solemnity does not persist, though. Like a spirit of eternal mischief, the piano steals back in, first with low, drumming figures and then with keyboard-spanning arpeggios. In the last minute, a rocketing fast tempo takes over, the festival mood returns, and the music conjures itself away, with a Mephistophelean bang.
The monster concerto has prospered on recordings. There are formidable accounts by John Ogdon, Garrick Ohlsson, and Hamelin, among others; the most thrilling is a live recording from the 1988 London Proms, with Mark Elder conducting the BBC Symphony and Peter Donohoe all but setting fire to the piano. (The disk is out of print, but it can be obtained through used-CD venders.) Still, live performances are uncommon. The work last showed up in New York in 1989, when Ohlsson played it at Carnegie Hall, with the Cleveland Orchestra, under Christoph von Dohnányi. “A hymn to immoderation,” Bernard Holland aptly called it in the Times.
Why does such a wildly entertaining creation remain such a rarity? For one thing, orchestras are naturally reluctant to undertake the expense of hiring both a soloist and a chorus for a single program. Also, the piano part is generally considered the most difficult in the concerto literature, and it is difficult in a way that may fail to satisfy the average crowd-pleasing virtuoso. This is no heroic struggle against the orchestral mass; instead, the pianist is, much of the time, one desperately busy worker among many. The endless arpeggios, double-octave runs, and other splashy effects are often marked at relatively low volume, or are partly covered by the orchestral din. Perhaps Busoni is making another cryptic joke at the expense of the concerto genre, but the solo part is better understood as the composer’s spirit incarnated within the frame of his work. As the British critic Edward Dent wrote, “Busoni sits at the pianoforte, listens, comments, decorates, and dreams.”
Piers Lane, an inquisitive Australian pianist who has long been based in London, had the music well in hand at Carnegie last month. He gave a fiercely accurate performance, achieving a sound of notable strength and weight. (The “impolite” passage was positively snotty.) At times, his phrasing had an irregular flow, the rhythmic shape of certain lines indistinct. Botstein, on the podium, bobbled several crucial shifts of tempo, most obviously at the beginning of the second movement; there, and in a few other places, pianist and orchestra seemed to go their own ways before getting back in synch. Then again, a sense of imminent disaster is integral to the piece. The Tarantella began at a blistering tempo and never let up: from there to the end, with members of the Collegiate Chorale resonantly praising Allah, the concerto properly thundered.
Botstein may have his limitations, but, season after season, his programming at the American Symphony fills gaps left by other institutions. Having returned the Busoni to circulation, in the second half of his December concert Botstein led the Faust Symphony of Liszt, whose two-hundredth anniversary, in October, inspired various solo recitals in New York but drew little attention locally to Liszt’s bigger orchestral and choral pieces. Botstein and his orchestra thrived on the opening movement of Faust, finding a rugged unanimity. Later, the tension slackened, for which the composer must accept some of the blame; Liszt’s architectural command was not as sure as that of Busoni, who emulated Liszt and also learned from his shortcomings.
The great Liszt moment of recent months was, rather, an intimate one. It came during a recital by the tenor Ian Bostridge and the composer-pianist Thomas Adès, at Carnegie. The composer Otto Luening once said that when Busoni played the piano he “made the instrument sound like an Aeolian harp as described by the poets, or like sound floating from a box of electronic resonators with apparently no relationship to hammered-string sound.” Adès achieved similarly eerie effects in Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. The final bars contain music of the utmost simplicity: three A-flat-major chords, with falling two-note figures suspended above them. Adès let those notes hang in the air for a short infinity, and they were possibly the most beautiful sounds I heard all year.