When I wrote about Busoni's Piano Concerto in January, I asked Marc-André Hamelin for his thoughts about the piece. I quoted a bit of what he said in my column; on the occasion of Hamelin's performance of the work this Wednesday with the New Jersey Symphony, as part of Spring for Music, here are more of his remarks. He has made an excellent recording of the concerto for Hyperion.
I've lost exact count of the performances I've given of the Busoni so far — it must be somewhere between twenty and twenty-five different venues. My very first one occurred in 1996, at the Lanaudière Festival in Joliette, Québec, with the Montréal Symphony, which was, interestingly, conducted by Jacques Lacombe [who leads the New Jersey on Wednesday]. The following stand out in my mind, in no special order: Suisse Romande, in Geneva, with Fabio Luisi; Sinfonia Lahti, with Osmo Vänskä; Tokyo Philharmonic, with Ryusuke Numajiri (in 2011; incredibly, this was the Japanese première); BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, with Vassily Sinaisky; Dallas Symphony, with Andrew Litton; and, most recently, last September, the Berlin Radio Orchestra under Marek Janowski.
This concerto's had a rocky history, and I think the problem has to do with what one expects from the piece. As a listener, the best attitude one can adopt for this kind of groundbreaking work is to bring to it a completely clean slate; those who are willing to shed any opportunity of comparing this piece with what they might already know are in for a truly transformative experience. Experiencing it while trying to get it to conform to a template of the accepted, traditional concerto form is likely to lead to either disappointment, disorientation, or both; only the first movement can be said to resemble anything like the usual "first movement sonata-allegro mold," and even that's a bit of a stretch. The usual role of the soloist is transformed here, and much more integrated in the orchestral fabric than usual. But if one must compare it with anything, I think that the work is likely to fare a lot better if one listens to it like one would a large-scale symphony (e.g. Mahler); the use of a choir in the last movement will thereby seem more natural, instead of inspiring derision.
The piano part is quite the monster, yes, but thankfully Busoni gives you opportunities to rest in between Everests! 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. Some passages can be slightly redistributed or sometimes even rescored pianistically so that they can be made somewhat more manageable while sounding exactly the same. (To my mind there's a vast difference between "rescoring" and "faking"!) This said, the whole requires a very large sound, and I think it's essential to have a large-sounding piano at your disposal.
However — and needless to say — even a complete mastery of the pianistic problems is meaningless if you remain unaware of the loftiness of Busoni's aims. I've said in print recently that treating something like the Liszt Sonata as a purely virtuosic exercise — something that is all-too-often a reality these days — is a little bit like tearing a page off a Gutenberg bible and using it to wrap carrot peels.