March 2000

Marc-André Hamelin - Ferrucio Busoni
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder
Hyperion CDA67143
Released: 1999

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]Ferrucio Busoni's only mature concerto for piano is a work without precedent in the literature. Cast in five linked movements, with a men's chorus in the finale, at almost an hour and a quarter in length, the work is like a monstrous conflation of Beethoven's Choral Fantasia and Ninth Symphony.

Busoni himself was a pianistic Titan, second only to Liszt as history's greatest pianist, as those who heard both men play have said. Like his friend Mahler, he wanted to be known as a composer, but financial circumstances necessitated performing as a means of earning a living (and, in both men's cases, of helping support their families back home).

Marc-André Hamelin, another piano Titan, has made something of a specialty out of performing (and recording) the "unperformable" and the obscure; this is perhaps his most mainstream recording yet, and he enters a field which, if not exactly crowded, is certainly not empty. Part of the difficulty with performing Busoni's Concerto is that it is really a concerto in name only. Not only is it symphonic in scale, it is a work of unusual thematic coherence, although, as Ronald Stevenson has pointed out, Busoni's themes are very long indeed, and the complex interrelationships between the movements are not obvious at first hearing. This means that the role of the conductor is more important than usual; there are long passages (especially in the finale) when the soloist is little more than another instrument in the orchestra. The ideal recording, then, will feature a soloist of brilliant technique and strong musical personality together with a conductor able to summon forth, from Busoni's occasionally intractable scores, the greatness hidden within.

Ogdon's pioneering account was let down, ultimately, by the accompaniment; Daniell Revenaugh may be a fine musician and evidently cares deeply for Busoni's music, but he is not, alas, a great conductor. However the second recording to enjoy general availability, (I am ignoring an obscure Swiss LP version from the mid-'80s), which appeared in 1990, was a live recording from the 1988 Promenade Concerts, and it triumphantly demonstrated what a stupendous effect the music could have. Peter Donohoe was the soloist there and Mark Elder the conductor, as in the present recording. Elder is one of the leading Busoni conductors working now; his way with the composer's scores is masterly; and this, it seems to me, is the problem with this new disc: Hamelin's personality is almost entirely submerged beneath that of his conductor.

Elder shapes the long orchestral introduction superbly (as he did for Donohoe), although the piano doesn't seem quite clearly focused enough at Hamelin's entry -- a supremely difficult moment. The massively pounding chords can sound massively banal in the wrong hands. Hamelin isn't bad, but only Ogdon and Donohoe quite convince here.

The second and fourth movements are both quick and frame the longest movement, the third. The second movement is headed Pezzo giocoso, (joyful piece) the fourth, All' Italiana; both are characterized by volcanic eruptions of sound. Again, a careful hand is required to get them right: appropriately joyous in the former (Hamelin and Elder seem a little straight-faced), witty and humorous in the headlong Tarantella of the latter. I could have used a little more wit and humor, although there is plenty of excitement and some superb playing from all concerned. The third is itself subdivided into three parts and titled Pezzo serioso (Serious piece). Here Hamelin and Elder together are at their best; the performance has gravitas as well as weight.

The finale is usually the most problematic movement, yet here is almost as successful as the third, due largely to the presence of Elder's firm hand on the tiller. Hamelin is happy to relegate himself to the role of accompanist -- this must be a rather unrewarding movement for the soloist, although the music is extremely taxing physically -- and Elder builds the setting of Adam Oelenschläger's mystical Hymn from Aladdin superbly, leading to a magnificent final peroration.

If you have detected a certain ambivalence on my part about this recording, you're right. Had the Donohoe/Elder still been in the catalog, I'd have no hesitation in recommending that above all others: it's the only one I've heard in which both soloist and conductor are of equal stature. Garrick Ohlsson's Teldec recording has garnered high praise in some quarters, but for me Ohlsson's brilliant pianism is rather too cold, and he is let down by Christoph von Dohnanyi's earthbound conducting of the score. Strangely, the David Lively/Michael Gielen combination (Koch International) never quite catches fire -- strangely, as Gielen is another of today's great Busoni conductors.

The choice, then, is between the Ogdon and this newcomer. The Ogdon, although three decades old, still sounds very good and is currently available in Philips' Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, coupled with his disappointingly lackluster account (originally for RCA) of Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano (a work with which Hamelin currently reigns supreme) together with more successful solo items by Scriabin and Busoni. Yet, as I have said, Ogdon is ultimately let down by Revenaugh's accompaniment, so it's a choice between two slightly flawed recordings. Ogdon brings more of himself to the solo part, but Elder shapes the accompaniment to far greater effect. Take your pick.