Sonatina Seconda, BV259
Ten Variations on the Prelude in C minor by Frédéric Chopin, BV213A
Sonata No.2 in E minor for violin and piano, BV244
The Rite of Spring [piano duet version] *
Karl Lutchmayer & David Alexander * (piano)
Gabrielle Painter (violin)
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 18 March, 2005
Venue: Regent Hall, Oxford Street, London
Ferruccio Busoni is today a curiously marginal figure, both in histories of music and in concert; his name is seen mainly as an appendage to that of Bach on recital programmes. Perhaps it is not the daunting technical challenges of his compositions so much as the high seriousness of the ideas informing them that is unfashionable; by the time of his later works Busoni was as much a theorist as a composer and a virtuoso, and a performer must study this aspect of his music as much as the others.
The sparse attendance of this recital, marking the publication of a new biography by Della Couling (Scarecrow Press), showed that Busoni remains a niche interest; or perhaps the lack of advance publicity accounts for the poor turnout. Either way, the Salvation Army’s Regent Hall was a mediocre venue for some excellent music-making, its antiseptic pink decor steadfastly resisting attempts to generate atmosphere.
Busoni’s piano music has a committed avatar in Karl Lutchmayer, the principal player in the concert. He began at the end, with the Toccata of 1920, Busoni’s last major work for solo piano and the summation of his neo-classicist ideas. It is a masterly work, economical and tautly argued; at its heart is a searching, Lisztian fantasia that Lutchmayer never allowed to drift. Instead, an insistent triplet rhythm tugged the reflective passages into a chaconne that brought brilliant pianistic fireworks.
The Sonatina Seconda, another late work, was even more intensely introspective, its unpredictable shifts in direction and tonality reminding us that this was the age of Freud’s unconscious. Once again Lutchmayer’s performance was compelling, drawing a wide expressive range of sonorities from his instrument.
Sadly, the promised Fantasia Contrappuntistica for two pianos had been scotched by the belated realisation that there was, in fact, only one piano available! Instead we were given Stravinsky’s piano/four hands reduction of The Rite of Spring. As Mr Lutchmayer observed in his introduction, the piece makes an interestingly contemporary comparison with Busoni’s work, one having apparently received its premiere 17 days before the other; these are opposite faces of modernism, Stravinsky’s primitivism and rhythmic drive contrasting with Busoni’s harmonic exploration and interior narratives. While well played here, the Rite on piano loses both Stravinsky’s vivid orchestral colour, and also the compelling sense of ritual that comes from a hundred musicians pounding out its orgiastic rhythms.
The second half offered a virtuoso rendition of the revised Ten Variations on Chopin’s C minor Prelude, which tests its theme against a range of harmonic possibilities, followed by the Second Violin Sonata. This is the work of a younger Busoni, and it shows; the form is more conventionally Romantic, and some of the melodies tend toward the foursquare. But this was a rapt, intense performance by Lutchmayer and Gabrielle Painter, whose earthy, lustrous tone gave visceral form to this cerebral music.