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Recordings

Ferruccio Busoni: Songs
05 Jun 2007

BUSONI : Songs

Doktor Faust eclipses most of Ferrucio’s Busoni’s other work in terms of popularity. Surprisingly, though, he wrote little song. Only 40 pieces remain, many written in his youth.

Ferruccio Busoni: Songs

Martin Bruns (baritone), Ulrich Eisenlohr (piano)

Naxos 8.557245 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

He was a virtuoso concert pianist, and knew most of the top musicians of his time. Yet he was also an extremely learned polymath, with a formidable knowledge of art and literature. His cosmopolitan background made him one of the first “true Europeans” who transcended national boundaries. Indeed, his whole life seems a quest to think “outside the box”. He believed that “music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny”, and that it was just in its infancy as an art form. Ultimately, his legacy may yet prove to be his visionary, liberating theories on art and music. Traditional as Busoni’s own music may seem, no less than the arch modernist Edgard Varèse was to describe him as “a figure out of the Renaissance…….. who crystallised my half formed ideas, stimulated my imagination, and determined, I believe, the future development of my music”.

Busoni left only 40 songs, most of them written in his youth. The earliest piece on this recording, Der Sängers Fluch, was written when the composer was only 12. It’s an ambitious piece indeed, lasting nearly 18 minutes without a break. It sets a long, melodramatic ballad by Ludwig Uhland. To Busoni’s credit he doesn’t set it strophically, but uses the piano line to explore piano techniques, remembering to insert decorative effects every now and then to progress the dramatic line. The young composer naturally engages more with the possibilities for piano, leaving the vocal line straightforward and unadorned, which is perhaps a relief as the text is florid in the overheated tastes of the time. This song, like the others written in the 1880’s, are juvenilia, if reasonably competent juvenilia. He seems to have realised that there was nothing for him in this genre and ceased writing song for another 30 years.

In 1918, after the upheaval of war, he returns to song with a completely fresh approach. The Goethe-Lieder are completely different, their choppy staccato rhythms quite unique. It’s as if Busoni were experimenting with a completely different type of modernism, bypassing Schoenberg altogether, much more attuned to Stravinsky. Busoni, in fact, had pioneered the study of Native American music, and to some extent this music reflects the early 20th century fascination with “primitivism” that led to the work of Picasso, among others. Yet musically, this is still mainstream western, a synthesis of many influences. The manic pace reminds me even of the Flight of the Bumblebee ! Interestingly, Busoni sets the same text of Mephistopheles and the Flea as did Mussorgsky, though in German translation. His version is more wickedly manic, with wonderfully demented circular figures on piano. It’s hardly surprising that this is one of Busoni’s most famous songs.

For Busoni, Goethe’s words had personal resonance. He, too, knew only too well about people who couldn’t tell “Mausedreck von Koriandern” (mouse droppings from coriander) yet are “those who find it most difficult when others are successful”. This perhaps inspires the sharp edge of satire in his setting of Lied des Unmuts, where he shapes the piano part with savage glee. The same wild pace infuses Zigeunerlied, ostensibly an imitation of Gypsy dancing, only much madder, swirling like the dance of a whirling dervish, getting higher and higher on its own andrenalin. Then there’s the tale of seven female werewolves, whom the singer recognises as women from the village. The nonsense chorus, “Wille wau wau wau, Willewo wo wo, Wito hu”

sends up, at the same time, both the bourgeoisie and the gothic genre itself. This is exhilarating, subversive stuff ! Similarly, Busoni understood Goethe’s sardonic wit very well. In Schlecter Trost, ghosts appear to a weeping man, who tells them he used to be someone important, but they couldn’t care less. Not only has his love left him, so too have the ghosts ! Lesser hands might have turned this poem into sentimental mush.

Then, Busoni sends up himself. Reminicenza Rossiniana, from 1924, is based on his own writings on art, music and opera. The result is a glorious pastiche of fake Rossini, and quotes from best selling potboilers like Wilkie Collins novels. It is elegant and stylish, even though it bursts with good humour. It’s a piece which should be performed more often, as the ideas on popular taste still apply.

Sadly, though, the performances on this recording don’t quite match the sparkle of the writing. The quirky impact of the later songs in particular is blunted : these really would benefit from freer, more spirited delivery. The earlier songs don’t present any technical challenges to either Bruns or to Eisenlohr in the same way, but their very ordinariness means that too straightforward an approach doesn’t help. A far better choice would be the recording by Elio Battaglia and Erik Werba, which is still available and infinitely livelier.

Anne Ozorio

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