‘Truly Bach is the Alpha of pianoforte composition and Liszt the Omega’.— Busoni, 1900
- Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
For so many reasons the recital by Kirill Gernstein was a remarkable event.Firstly because the performances he gave were sensational for their musical authority and technical mastery.Even the seemingly obscure works by Busoni were brought to life by someone who had entered so fully into this mysterious sound world that was described by Gernstein with a quote from 1901 :’A musical sun that set at Liszt’s death and shines again through Busoni.‘It was on this very stage known then as Bechstein Hall that was inaugurated by Busoni and Ysaye on 31st May 1901.
It was fascinating to hear Gernstein talk about Busoni as he took us on a journey from his Elégie n.1 ‘ after the turning’ where Busoni had finally freed himself from the romanticism of his early piano concerto and was reaching out to find a new musical voice.It was the voice that Liszt hints at in his late works and is a voice made of mists and colours ,music without key signatures or bar lines.Again quoting Busoni:’Music is born free and to win back it’s freedom is it’s destiny.
And so it was with the Second Sonatina of 1912 ‘senza tonalità’ where all boundaries are removed.
The mists of sound of the Berceuse – 7th Elégie which Mahler had included in the orchestral version in his last concert.Mysterious sounds out of which emerge a melodic line ,similar in many ways to the searching sound world of late Scriabin.I have not heard it played in recital since Serkin included it with the Toccata in London in the 70’s (together with works by Reger in a programme including the Schumann Carnaval and Beethoven op 111).
The sixth sonatina that followed is known as the Carmen fantasy as it was Busoni’s recreation of the opera he had seen in Paris in 1920.The ending he even marks Andante visionario which of course it is.Like Liszt’s transcriptions or paraphrases this was someone who had understood the very core of the work and was able to transmit it’s inner message more clearly and in Liszt’s case sometime improve on it by changing the order of appearance.Thomas Ades was present in the audience and a close friend from whom Gernstein had recently commissioned a piano concerto (with funds from the prestigious Gilmore Trust).He describes Busoni’s music as a ‘suitcase with a false bottom’.The last piano work that Busoni wrote was the Toccata where he prefaces it with a quote of Frescobaldi:’Not without difficulty will we come to the end” Busoni had exchanged Frescobaldi’s ‘effort’for ‘difficulty’.Busoni’s last appearance at the now renamed Wigmore Hall was in 1922 when he was already suffering from a kidney disease no doubt due to his love of Champagne – he died two year later.Greatly disturbed by the First World War exclaiming :’The uninterrupted arch of our life has been interrupted!”These were only the fascinating introductions to the works that Gernstein played with such overwhelming mastery.Playing of such extraordinary sounds where notes did not seem to exist as we moved from one shimmering atmospheric planet to another.There were moments of breathtaking virtuosity as in the opening of the Carmen Fantasy taken at a breakneck speed but with such character and clarity – bright sunlight – before the amorous and ominous clouds overtook.
The toccata too was played with extraordinary authority and technical command.But it was the overall understanding of a sound world that was so remarkable and a sense of balance that could make the musical landscape of Busoni so clear.Indeed the world that Liszt so prophetically had pointed to at the end of his life suddenly came alive with sense and reason and just underlined the opening quote between the sun setting with Liszt and rising again with Busoni.A fascinating journey of pure music where the fact that we were listening to one of the great pianists of our time was secondary to his overwhelming musical authority.I think that could also be the way of describing Busoni himself!
What seemed so remarkable and indeed visionary in the first half of the concert opened the door for Liszt’s transcendental studies.They were played with the same sense of colour and architectural shape that the feat of being able to play so many notes paled into insignificance before the musical message that was being transmitted.I remember listening to Lazar Berman play the studies in one of his first concerts in the Festival Hall in London.There was such overwhelming sound that I quickly left the hall after the third one as my ears could just not take so much continuous sound.A school of playing where every note is played right to the bottom of the key ….and beyond ………exemplified by master virtuosi such Alexander Toradze and Denis Matsueev.A school that turns the piano back into a percussion instrument whereas Liszt and Busoni had pointed us into the direction of multicoloured sounds.A world where notes were transformed into shapes and atmospheres.A magic world where a box full of hammers and strings could be turned into a kaleidoscope of sounds and emotions.Was it not Thalberg who when he played was accused of having made a pact with the devil as it seemed he had three hands,such was the illusion he was able to create by the subtle use of the pedal,balance and technical control.It was Anton Rubinstein who had said that the pedal is the ‘soul’ of the piano We seem these day to have lost what was known as the ‘Matthay touch’,where every note could have at least one hundred different gradations.I remember Rosalyn Tureck who if the lid of the piano was not left shut before a concert she would spend time brushing off the minutest particles of dust that could impede her from weighing up each key.It was this that made Kirill Gernstein’s performance today so remarkable.
We were treated to twelve miniature tone poems where Paysage became just as significant as Der Wilde Jagd because the passionate involvement and sense of line was the same .
The ravishing beauty of Ricordanza – ‘a bunch of faded love letters tied with a pink ribbon’ to quote Busoni and the incredible fleeting impression of ‘Will o’ the wisp’ Feux Follets .One of the most technically challenging of all piano pieces was played with such a haze of sounds that blew across the keyboard with a left hand that was like a jewels sparkling in the night air.
Has Vision ever sounded as noble or ‘visionary’ with such sumptuous sounds?The whole opening page played by the left hand alone before the streams of sounds where even two hands did not seem enough!
The octaves in Eroica after the quixotic opening were like vibrations of sound and we were certainly not aware that they were the notoriously difficult octaves that we all wait for.
Mazeppa too was played with astonishing energy but also a sense of balance where everything was so clear as the excitement grew to breathtaking proportions.The central episode,sumptuous tenor melody with streams of golden sounds cascading around it.Has the Fminor study ever sounded more passionately abandoned or beautifully phrased with a coda of terrifying brilliance? Harmonies du soir was played like Paysage with ravishing sounds and passionate involvement.The final left hand arpeggios so reminiscent of Busoni’s own Berceuse with just a mist of sound on which floated the melodic line.
Chasse Neige ,considered by many to be the finest of the set ,was played with an extraordinary sense of balance and forward movement building up to a breathtaking climax before dying away with swirls of sound.It died away to end this extraordinary performance with a simple bare chord.
Minutes of aching silence at the end as the audience tried to come to terms with what they had experienced and Kirill Gernstein had a moment of recovery.
The only encore possible after that could be by Bach-Busoni!It was in fact the chorale prelude ‘Nun freut euch ,Lieben Christen gemein’ played at incredible speed but with such clarity,the melodic line miraculously emerging above the joyous outpouring of brilliance.