New Recording Of Busoni's 'Piano Concerto' Is An Extraordinary Experience

Jun 3, 2019
Originally published on June 3, 2019 2:46 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Can a piece of music be too big for its own good? That's a question our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been asking himself. He doesn't particularly like grandiosity for its own sake, but in the case of a new recording of what might be the biggest piano concerto ever written, Lloyd thinks the music earns its size.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BUSONI'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN C MAJOR, OP. 39")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: One of the recordings I've enjoyed most this year is a CD of two famous piano concertos reduced to the size of chamber music, but my new favorite is a recording of what might be the biggest piano concerto ever written. It's by the turn-of-the-20th-century Italian composer and piano virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, who is probably best known for his adventurous transcriptions of Bach.

Most piano concertos clock in at about half an hour or a little more, but the Busoni takes an hour and 10 minutes. It's a fascinating concoction of the serious and the fabulous, the solemn and the pyrotechnic. A concerto not even in the usual three or even four movements, this one is in five, ending with a men's chorus singing, in German, a Danish poem about spiritual transcendence.

I've heard only one live performance of it almost 30 years ago by the pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Cleveland Orchestra. Their marvelous recording is still available. Two years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo with the Russian virtuoso Kirill Gerstein, performed this humongous work in Boston where I live, but I was traveling and had to miss it. That performance has now been released on CD, and I'm blown away by it. Big concertos like Rachmaninoff's are usually full of gorgeous tunes played by an inflated orchestra. Paradoxically, the even bigger Busoni concerto has a kind of austerity, the feeling that it needs its vast size in order to work out something that might never get worked out. Instead of being on a Hollywood set, it's more like we're entering a labyrinth. Take this passage in the second movement. I find it bewitching. But what rivets me is the way it seems to be trying to figure out where it's going.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BUSONI'S "PIANO CONCERTO: II. PEZZO GIOCOSO")

SCHWARTZ: Each movement holds new surprises. The first movement is essentially solemn, almost religious in its long-range Wagnerian unfolding. But the second movement is marked playful. The massive third movement depicts a profound crisis. But here's the calm that ends it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BUSONI'S "PIANO CONCERTO: III. PEZZO SERIOSO")

SCHWARTZ: And here's the whirlwind tarantella that immediately follows that calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BUSONI'S "PIANO CONCERTO: IV. ALL'ITALIANA, TARANTELLA")

SCHWARTZ: Finally, with that last choral movement - Busoni calls it a canticle - you feel as if you've been through some large spiritual adventure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BUSONI'S "PIANO CONCERTO: V. CANTICO")

SCHWARTZ: Pianist Kirill Gerstein, conductor Sakari Oramo and the Boston Symphony Orchestra fulfill all of Busoni's impossible demands. If you can manage it, try to listen to the whole work in one sitting just to see how Busoni's vast scale and astonishing variety really come together as a single, extraordinary musical experience.

SCHWARTZ: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He's also the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed the Busoni piano concerto with Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jim DeRogatis, who broke the story of R. Kelly and his underage sexual victims. DeRogatis broke the story of the R. Kelly sex tape - or rape tape - that led to his 2008 trial and the story of how Kelly led a cult of young girls. DeRogatis has continued to investigate the story. And now he's written a new book called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.