Busoni plays Beethoven
Busoni by Grigory Kogan
BUSONI, by Grigory Kogan
Translated by Svetlana Belsky
Chapters V and VI

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Chapter V

Despite individual differences (sometimes significant) between the virtuosos of that epoch, the vast majority of them were trained in the tradition of Romanticism. However, the times of the flowering of this is style in piano playing, the times of Liszt and Rubinstein were already passed, and the style leaned toward decadence. The concert repertoire consisted of a limited number of composers and compositions. The classicism of the 18th century seemed a cold and obsolete art, Bach - and esteemed museum relic. "How many of his works can no longer appeal to us!," wrote the famous pianist Eugene D'Albert in the forward to his edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier. "I know that there are those who can listen to the Cantatas without showing boredom. But they are either hypocrites or pedants." Not surprisingly, Bach and Mozart were almost never performed in concert, or were played for formality's sake at the very beginning of the program, as a prelude to the "real" concert. The piano repertoire began "seriously" with Beethoven, and reached its apogee in Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin, in whose compositions Hoffmann, Paderewski and many other renowned performers of the day gained their laurels. Liszt was popular chiefly as the author of transcriptions and effective virtuoso pieces; his more important original works appeared in the programs much more rarely. The above mentioned names, represented usually by the same, much overplayed compositions (the "Moonlight" and "Appassionata" of Beethoven, Schumann's Carnaval, the seventh Waltz, fifteen Prelude, A-flat Major Polonaise of Chopin, Liszt's sixth Rhapsody and "La Campanella," and so on), were supplemented by a certain number of the "most modern" composers, mainly of the salon variety (Moszkowski, Paderewski, Sauer, Schutt, etc.). All these were tossed together, like a salad, to arrange recital programs, which would come out guilty of certain tastelessness, as a result. Here, by way of example, are a few randomly selected piano recital programs of the decades in question from St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev: Bach-Tausig, Chopin, Schumann, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Gabrilowitsch, Leschetizky, Mendelssohn-Liszt (Gabrilowitsch, 1898); D' Albert, Beethoven, Weber, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, Liszt (D'Albert, 1898); Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Paderewski, Liszt (Paderewski, 1904); Gluck-Saint-Saens, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Hoffmann, Schitte, Liszt (Hofmann, 1910); Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky-Pabst; Bach-Tausig, Gluck-Brahms, Weber, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Pabst; Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Rubinstein, Hofmann, Liszt; Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Rubinstein, Hofmann, Debussy, Moszkowski (Hofmann, 1912).

The character of performance underwent a similar evolution. The larger questions of interpretation narrowed, became smaller, most concerned with detail. Next to this concentration of the interpretation of detail, be it "academically" thorough, or, instead, capriciously "improvisatory", the central idea of the composition, in whose profound and lucid revelation Liszt and Rubinstein saw the principal task of the performer, grew dim and lifeless. Diverging in particulars, the interpretation of the whole became standardized, lost the imprint of the artist's personality; creative exploration, individuality of interpretation all gave way to canonical reproduction of what was once discovered by the great progenitors of Romantic pianism. Even in a master as remarkable as Hofmann, the critics, including his most rapturous admirers, found an absence of "creative conception," "the creative 'self": "…Revelation… is not to be expected of Hofmann," "far from often does he speak a new word, far from often is he profound," "Hofmann represents the typical in piano-playing", even if "in flawlessly ideal perfection."

Generally, interpretation, where the work of the artist's mind was in evidence, was met with suspicion and was qualified as "artificial" or "cerebral." Thinking was the job of a scientist, not an artist. In art, the great sovereign was emotion, seen as an antipode of thought. In piano performance, "emotion" was of two varieties. One was expressed in playing of elegiac, exquisite, more-or-less "salon-like" character; the pianistic embodiment of these qualities was achieved by a soft wrist attack, a singing tone, preferential use of legato, rounded phrasing, detailed nuance, "wavy" dynamics and rhythm, frequent crescendos, diminuendos, ritardandos, rubatos, arpeggiandos and similar effects, systematized by the celebrated school of Leschetizky. The pianists of this type -de Pachmann, Leschetizky students headed by Paderewski and Essipova, and others - earned the greatest fame as "Chopinists."

The specialty of the second group of pianists were the virtuoso works of Liszt. The best pianists of the group attempted to follow in the footsteps of young Liszt and Rubinstein, conquering the listener with technique and temperament, "tempest and chaos," "heaven-storming bravura" of performance. But, little by little, Rubinstein's pathos was replaced by rhetorical declamation, Rubinstein's grandeur - by an artificial pose, Rubinstein's thunder and lightnening - by theatrical effects. "Baroque, nothing but Baroque - all decorative embellishment and tinsel of sound…" - thus the critic and theorist of pianism R. Breithaupt characterizes the "pompous" playing of the famous pianist Reisenauer. "Something like a theatrical king from a historical drama: with clanging armor and shining shield, a lofty set and proud gait, and pathetic howling."

Busoni approached interpretation quite differently. "He is unlike any pianist St. Petersburg has heard," - notes a surprised critic after his first Busoni concert. The questions posed to himself by the pianist, and the demands placed by him on the listeners were entirely new to them: "the public has not gotten accustomed to him yet; it came to hear the customary "salon" performance and found itself hearing a serious concert."

The principal difference between Busoni's pianism and the "customary salon performance" began with the content and organization of his concert programs. Admittance there to Moszkowski, Schutt and other such composers of lightweight salon pieces was denied. Exclusivity did not stop there: the bigger names, too, underwent a "cleansing," especially the German Romantics - Mendelssohn, Schumann and (with one exception) Brahms, to whom the "new" Busoni cooled to such an extent that he began to consider them second rate. In his maturity the master played almost exclusively Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, adding a few selected works of Franck (Prelude, Chorale and Fugue), Brahms (Paganini Variations) and Busoni himself. However, the works of the above-named five favorite composers were presented in Busoni's programs in depth, including the less familiar, rarely performed compositions; the latter were subject to especial partiality, causing him to search archives, private collections, second-hand stores for forgotten or unpublished works, printed or manuscript variants of known works, etc. Thus, the choral preludes of Bach; the first, not yet published edition of Liszt's "Gondoliera and Tarantella," his Fantasy on the Marriage of Figaro, of which the unpublished manuscripts was found and first performed (after the author) by Busoni, appeared on Busoni's programs; in the same spirit of broadening the horizon of the audience, in Beethoven, the artist changes the emphasis from the popular sonatas of the middle period to the more difficult last opuses (Sonatas opus 106 and opus 111, Bagatelles opus 126).

In addition, Busoni grouped the works performed according to one consideration or another. This, too, was novel at the time and attracted the attention of reviewers: "… Mr. Busoni takes his programs seriously, trying to give them unity and structure," "Busoni's programs were constructed interestingly, in large integral chunks."

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The truth of these assertions is evident in typical Busoni programs:

  1. Sonata op. 106 of Beethoven, 24 Preludes of Chopin and the Liszt B minor Sonata;
  2. Beethoven Sonata op. 109, Brahms-Paganini Variations and Liszt's "Don Juan" Fantasy;
  3. Two Beethoven Sonatas (op. 53 and op. 111) and one of the Annees de Pelerinage of Liszt (complete);
  4. Six Paganini-Liszt Etudes, Six Bagatelles op. 126 of Beethoven, four Bach-Busoni Organ Chorale Preludes, and 12 Chopin Etudes Op. 25;
  5. All-Beethoven evening: Sonata Op. 111, Bagatelles Op. 126 and Sonata Op. 106;
  6. Two Liszt evenings: the first two Années "Switzerland" and "Italy", both complete, on one; the third Anne (complete) and the B minor Sonata on the other;
  7. Liszt transcriptions evening: first half - transcriptions of works by German composers (Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Meyerbeer), second half - of Italian (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi);
  8. "Italian" Liszt evening: "Italy" from the Années, Gondoliera and Tarantella (first edition) on the first half, transcriptions of Italian composers on the second;
  9. Evening of Liszt etudes: the twelve "Transcendental" and six "Paganini";

Busoni was the first pianist to have performed together as a whole the eighteen Etudes of Liszt, his Années, the 24 Preludes of Chopin, his four Ballades, etc.

Busoni would not limit himself to planning such groupings within one program, but also often went further, uniting the programs of several recitals into a unified, even more monumental cycle; in addition to the previously mentioned examples of such cycles (the cycle on the history of the piano concerto, Liszt cycles) may be added: the Basel cycle of four "monographical" concerts (1910), tours of Italy with a group of eight Klavierabends dedicated to the development of piano literature from Bach to the present (1913) and so on.

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Chapter VI

The peculiarities of Busoni-the-interpreter, clearly evident in the matter of what he played, stand in even sharper relief in how he played it. Here, the "great personality" of the performer, his "giant, brilliant and original individuality" left an inimitable stamp on his "unusually personal," "uniquely special and independent" renditions. "Going to hear other pianists, even the great ones, we usually know quite well exactly how this or that piece will be played and get ourselves on a particular track in advance. Busoni, however, pushes off that track: everything with him is more or less unexpected… acquiring a new character and thoroughly different lighting. This is the principal charm of Busoni's magical art." "The most valuable in him is that which is unexpected and yet happily discovered, deeply convincing." "Busoni's performance makes an impression of a brilliant improvisation - and this is his foremost strength!"

Indeed in this, in the "free flight of poetic fantasy," in the creative nature of performance was the "foremost strength" of Busoni-the-interpreter, "perhaps, his most substantial distinction from other pianists." "The work of composition is continued by the performer. But it does not reach such brilliance as in Busoni"; "no contemporary pianist I capable of this creative transformation." "The creative 'self' was missing in Hofmann's playing," "Hofmann, without a doubt possesses much less creative power," Busoni's renditions "stand no comparison even with those of Hofmann: compared with Busoni's, Hofmann's appear routine, common and dry." In Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106 "the inspired 'improvisation' of the great Busoni" sounded like "a revelation", after which Hofmann's interpretation "seemed rather shallow, superficial, insignificant." This is why musicians acknowledged Busoni as an "artist of a higher rank than Hofmann" and why "for many it became impossible after Busoni's performances to be carried away by the impersonality of the formally perfect playing of Hofmann."

Not surprisingly, that, which, by popular consent, was the strongest feature of Busoni-the-interpreter, was, as it often happens, also the most vulnerable aspect of his playing. A sizable proportion of the critics reproaches the artist that his interpretations are often so original and individual, have a character so personal and subjective, differ so sharply from "accepted norms and sanctified traditions," that the "free flight of fantasy" of the pianist becomes capriciousness, contradicts the conventional notions of a given composer and his composition. "It has been a long time since I have heard an artist… change a composition to such degree with his playing. Change, that is, not in a sense of altering notes, harmony, form, but rather its tempo, its spirit, its mood… In many Chopin preludes he improvised in this sense so freely that, of the individuality of Chopin, the Chopin we know and love, there was nothing left. Instead, we were shown something unusual and foreign."

Matters stood thus not only in Chopin. "He recreates them (the composers - G. K.) in his own image. They all 'become Busoni'… He uses their works as canvas for his own performing creativity"; having gone through his creative laboratory, they metamorphose so much, as to become to a much greater extent the creations of his own genius than that of the authors whose names figure in the program." Many other reviews speak of this: "whosever works this amazing artist plays - he expresses mostly himself"; "Busoni never plays Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt; he always performs Busoni-Chopin, Busoni-Beethoven and Busoni-Liszt"; and again: "All that Busoni plays is not Chopin, not Mozart, not Liszt, not Bach. All is Busoni-Chopin, Busoni-Mozart, Busoni-Liszt, Busoni-Bach."

The "Busonization" of all composers engendered numerous reproofs. "… Busoni instead of Liszt, Busoni instead of Mozart, Busoni instead of Chopin - is that not too much Busoni?" - protested one critic. "No matter how rich, how varied in its manifestations his genius may be, there is no doubt that Bach, plus Mozart, plus Beethoven, plus Chopin, plus Liszt, each performed in its own style, would present much more variety." "I, personally, - echoes another, - would prefer simply Chopin. Without any improvisations. Even if they were the improvisations of Ferruccio Busoni himself.

Busoni's willful renditions sometimes seemed so "strange," even "incomprehensible" to some reviewers, that the latter suspected an artificiality in their conception, deliberate novelty, which "crosses the line of naturalness in the attempt to see and understand differently than others." "He purposely strives to produce interpretations which contradict tradition, the accepted view, the inheritance of great interpreters… In search of originality he often borders on such deviations, that it seems that the artist simply grimaces, poses, desiring at all cost not to resemble anyone…" "Occasionally, it appeared as if the pianist, from the heights of his international fame, mocks Chopin, the public, and, above all, musicians."

Special indignation of these critics was aroused by the fact that Busoni not only departed from the accepted understanding, from the traditions, but also indulged in altering the original text. The above-cited reviewer was mistaken, when he asserted that Busoni's changes did not involve "notes, harmony, forms" of the piece. In reality "he interprets all music, all compositions in his own way, often 'correcting' compositions that do not belong to him." "The number of 'corrections' and 'improvements' introduced by this remarkable pianist is enormous…" - confirms a review of Busoni's performance of Beethoven's Fifth Concerto. Busoni "sharply changes the tempo during a single movement" of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111, metrically lengthens the melody in the ERLKÖNIG of Schubert-Liszt, begins the recapitulation of the Funeral March from Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata fortissimo instead of the author's piano, permits himself "inclusions and changes" in Chopin's A-flat Major Polonaise, repeats various phrases in the C Major, G Major, A Major and E-flat minor Preludes, makes small additions in the B minor Prelude and some of the etudes, and, instead, deletions in other etudes of the same composer and in the B minor Sonata of Liszt, and, in many cases doubles the bass or the melody, fills in and double chords, changes hand distribution, and other similar "retouching."

Although these sins against the letter of the text were, for the most part, insignificant, the academically-trained musicians reacted highly emotionally. "An involuntary feeling of indignation seizes the listener," - we read in one review; another critic finds Busoni's changes in the A-flat Major Polonaise of Chopin "repugnant"; "one would consider any changes in the original text of Chopin as artistic blasphemy," writes the third on the subject of the same changes.

Nevertheless, Busoni's "heresies" turned out occasionally to be artistic achievements that knocked the ground from under the "literalists." It was necessary to admit that, though not always, but "sometimes" and even "often" Busoni re-creates the works of others "inimitably, with genius," "uses his whims to highlight a given work in a new way, and with captivating brilliance." In Beethoven's Fifth Concerto, the B minor Sonata and other works of Liszt he "conquers," "persuades," "forces one to believe in the rightness of his interpretation," which is "unusually brilliant, profound and convincing," though quite far from the "orthodox" and abundant with "improvements," "different from the prototype created by the author, but of equal genius." More than that: "… there are moments, when it seems that his genius suggested to him something better than what was in the original." And if so, what if all composers performed by him "turn into Busoni"? "It is not so bad at all." Of course, "there is a risk": "in the hands of those less able and less talented" performers who lack Busoni's "persuasion and puissance," this manner "may become, and, undoubtedly, will become only pretentious contortion…" But the "artist of Busoni's caliber," "equal in genius" to the composer being re-created, has the right to his "genius distortion," "the victors are above judgment," "talent makes its own laws," "one can not argue with a talent this magnificent." And should someone dispute the "legality" of this or that of Busoni's "corrections," "while fully aware of the righteousness of this criticism, one wishes to grumble at the musical hypocrisy, the excessive piousness…" "Let it be said hundreds and thousands of times that there is much that is questionable in this performance, that the image of Chopin was entirely contorted… Let it be so. But the mighty gift of Busoni lifted us up to the heights of art, which took our breath away, and which we were loath to leave…

The differences in the attitude toward Busoni's liberties were determined by the differences in the aesthetic position of the critics. But what can explain the vacillations in the evaluation of these liberties by the same critics? Why was the "re-creation" of compositions by Busoni "sometimes the work of genius, sometimes only fortunate and interesting, other times unfortunate but interesting"?

Partially, of course, it depended on the performer's state at a given concert, of whether or not he was "on". "At his first concert, Busoni played without enthusiasm, and the extreme subjectivity of his playing left a perturbing sensation…; during the second concert, where the artist played equally freely, played 'himself,'… you could no longer say that. That was because Busoni played with a high level of creative energy, with genius…"

The most important reason, however, was something else - namely, in what Busoni played and how spiritually close to him was the particular composer. "If the spiritual makeup of the composer being performed contains features the are powerful in the individuality of Busoni himself, we, as a result, have captivating revelations and attainments, if this contact is not present - Busoni can enthrall but not convince!"

The critics unanimously acknowledged Bach and Liszt to be the most closely related to Busoni. They were not mistaken: the artist had long admired the Leipzig cantor and the Weimar magician (one - from his very childhood, the other - from the time of his turning point), referred to them as the "alpha and omega," the "foundation and the summit" of performing art, paid them the most attention in his research, editions and transcriptions. No wonder, then, that they became also the twin foundations of his performing "throne." "These two composers are lucky. Their closeness to Busoni insured that, in him, they acquired a genius interpreter…" Here Busoni is "in his element," "especially great…simply unmatched," "incomparable," "has no equals in the depth of understanding and in artistic beauty of interpretation," indisputably owns "the world crown," "leaving far behind Hofmann and all other virtuosos I have ever heard." Reviewers of various schools never tire of admiring "the uncommon poetry," "the spiritual lucidity, the transparency in a complex contrapuntal texture," "the amazing differentiation of the timbre of each voice" in the chorale preludes of Bach, the "unforgettable" interpretation of Liszt's A Major Concerto, the "captivating," "magically-grandiose," "titanically unified" rendition of the Totentanz, the Dante Sonata, the B minor Sonata, the "singular," "demonic" performance of Norma and Don Juan, the Petrarch Sonnets, "sung with inexpressible tenderness," the "the dazzling technique…incomparable elegance, exquisite taste and lavish detail" in the Liszt Etudes, "which were something wondrous to hear." With all that, in these and other works of the two composers, no one objected to the performer's "highly individual, bold" treatment of the author's "prototype," now quite compatible with the remarkable "penetration to the very depth of the composer's creation." And while Busoni imparts the "impression of his mighty individuality" even on Liszt, he "does not distort the creative image of the composer"; on the contrary, "in this reincarnated state, Liszt's inspiration assumes its true character…"

Busoni's approach to Beethoven was more debatable. A number of critics considered him, like Bach and Liszt, among composers who were "the most compatible with the mighty personality of Busoni," called the latter "a superb Beethovenist," "the greatest Beethoven interpreter of our time." However, this opinion was shared by the majority only in regard to the grandiose Hammerklavier Sonata (op. 106), the performance of which by Busoni was unanimously believed to be "a revelation," created "on heights unattainable to others." In other Beethoven works, on the other hand, particularly those belonging to the early or middle periods, Busoni's innovations were not so easily accepted; the merits were noted ("remarkable for the subtle and originally conceived details," "seductive perfection in the beauty of piano timbre and musical 'diction' of Sonata Op. 111," "brilliant and impressive rendition of the Fifth Concerto"), but so were the "suspicious" experiments of "modernization," which "could interest… but could not convince, or carry away."

The most disapproval was conferred upon Busoni for his Chopin. If in Bach, Beethoven and Liszt he was indisputably Hofmann's superior, here Hofmann, equally indisputably, could claim his revenge. Only a handful of devoted "Busonists," fanatically loyal to their idol, unconditionally revered his "revolution in Chopin interpretation," argued that this composer, too, was played "superbly," "splendidly," "masterfully," passionately debated the "silly" assertion that "Busoni's does not succeed in Chopin." Nevertheless, the vast majority of critics were of the opposite opinion. Acknowledging the technical perfection and aural charms of Busoni's Chopin, admiring the many discoveries and certain successes of the artist, the majority still found his interpretation of Chopin on the whole unsuccessful, unconvincing, so far removed from the spirit of Chopin's music as to occasionally resemble a caricature. "The most objections could be aroused by the performance of the two series of Chopin Etudes. Here Busoni's fanciful interpretation disharmonized with the creative plans of Chopin, there the insanely quick tempos shocked, not to mention the breaking of the long line of the etude, the additions and deletions." "Marring and breaking Chopin's etudes (with his own additions), depriving them of poetry and the specific Chopinesque aroma, Busoni turned them simply into exercises for finger velocity…" Other reviewers are also full of complaints at the same etudes, displayed by the pianist "in a broken form," at the "overly capricious, arbitrary" performance of the Chopin Preludes, at the "repulsive mannerisms" in the A-flat Major Polonaise. "But there was a composer who proved to be a stumbling block to his magnificent talent. I speak of Chopin, understood very strangely, or, rather, understood not at all." "It was not Chopin, but some impersonation of Chopin…"

Thus, Chopin was the composer in whose works Busoni was least successful, whose works, if the numerous reactions of reviewers are to be trusted, he "distorted" the most. The careful reader has, probably, already noted the fact that the previously quoted indignant philippics of various critics regarding the textual "liberties" of the artists concentrated mainly around the works of Chopin; in the composers - Bach and Liszt above all - whose creative being was close to the performer, the deviations from the text were regarded, was we have seem, as artistically justified, arousing no thoughts of "blasphemy." Does that not imply that, contrary to the point of view of purists, deviations by the performer from the letter of the text are bad and unacceptable not in all cases, not in and of themselves, but, rather, only where and when they are dictated by a lack of understanding of the spirit of the music, a lack of inner "contact" with it?

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