The Music Column

Doktor Faust und Der Busoni

When they are so easily available for free, the opportunities on YouTube don’t leave much excuse for not taking advantage of them, even though in one particular case at least, the musical presentation is puzzling or unidiomatic or off-putting.  But even there, gradually, the realization sets in—the realization that one hears the distillation of a lifetime’s experience, the transcendence of prodigious youth, and the metamorphic rejection of romantic inflation, indulgence, and sentimentality.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, certain performances of particular Chopin pieces are striking in their antipathetic refusal of obvious appeal.  Right in the center of the Golden Age of romantic pianism is a repudiation of its salient qualities by the greatest player of his time, Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924), himself a modernizing radical advocate of “Young Classicism.”  He was a musician in whom there was little if anything of the salon.

The old acoustic recordings made in London for British Columbia in 1922 take up only slightly less than 26 minutes—grudging and distorted minutes, such as they are.  Yet these discs can suggest much to us about the pianist whose name was legend.  He was once so well established that, during his last years in Berlin, he was “Der Busoni,” as in “the bank” or “the university.” ...

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