Naxos continues its edition, with pianist Wolf Harden, of Ferruccio Busoni's piano music, of which there is a lot, with most of it written at a very high level of difficulty and some invested in rather long pieces that require almost superhuman endurance. Volume six contains three rather uncommon pieces, starting with Busoni's piano transcription of Liszt's organ work Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam," a piece recorded in part by Busoni's pupil Leo Sirota as early as the mid-'20s, but seldom visited since. Liszt created his own four-hand version of the piece that is far more frequently played over Busoni's solo piano edition. This is followed by Busoni's early Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 20a, composed in 1883 when Busoni was 17, a relative rarity hardly known before the 1980s. The Prélude et Etude en Arpèges (1923) is a very late Busoni composition and the best-known work on the program; it is a highly regarded piece that bears some kinship with his never-finished opera Doktor Faustus. All of these pieces are well worth hearing; as in the case of the Spanish Rhapsody, although it's technically a transcription of Liszt, no one would mistake the Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" for being Liszt because it has Busoni's special gestures and approach to piano technique all over it. Although Busoni rejected all of his pre-1893 works for what he felt was their precocity and lack of finish, as it turns out the F minor Piano Sonata is a fully mature and ambitious statement that is unusual for an Italian composer in the opera-obsessed 1880s and written in a time when the piano sonata itself was a form suffering from a brief eclipse.
The Naxos Busoni piano music edition has some strong advantages over other, similar projects; Busoni's piano music is so expansive and confusing that some editions have found ways to curtail the overall project in some way -- the Bach/Busoni or other kinds of transcriptions are left out, or made a different project on its own, or -- as Gunnar Johansen did on his Artist's Direct label in the 1960s -- limiting it only to fully original compositions. In Johansen's day, though, it was practically impossible to access the earlier Busoni works in manuscript that were extant; by the twenty-first century most of these efforts had found their way into print. Naxos' edition is pretty much all-inclusive of everything and combines works on individual volumes in an intelligent way; certainly the recordings are technically superior to anything that appeared on Artist's Direct. However, one genuinely wishes the label could have employed a pianist just a little more on the ball than Harden; it sounds like he is reading these scores, and it's a very good reading, but he often seems behind Busoni's music and there really isn't a strong interpretive sense at play in these renderings. To his credit, Johansen had his personal contact with Busoni to draw from and his passion for the project, so it's easy to forgive the bad sound and occasional finger slips here and there. Harden seems a bit lacking on the passion front and during the Prélude et Etude en Arpèges -- stated almost entirely in arpeggios -- we hear an arpeggio that has a note missing from it; Harden simply wasn't able to place his finger on the key at that moment. Naxos should have retaken it, but didn't; with Roland Pöntinen, Carlo Grante, and Ronald Stevenson already out there in this work, this recording simply doesn't have a competitive edge.