Once in awhile Naxos drops an unexpected bonus into the basket, and Ferruccio Busoni: Songs is just such a delight. It consists of 18 lieder rendered by expert Swiss baritone Martin Bruns of which the first 12 were all written before Busoni reached the age of 20. The early songs are suffused with the bloom of youth and, while not technically transparent, shows that the adolescent Busoni was no mere scribbler but capable of writing expressive and exciting music. The jewel in the crown of this collection is a ballad of which Othmar Schoeck would have been envious, Des Sänger's Fluch, Op. 39, a sort of mini opera for solo singer that tells a complete and tragic tale in about 18 minutes; it was composed when Busoni was 12. Among the other earlier songs, Bin ein fahrender Gesell deserves special mention owing to its stimulating and catchy tarantella rhythm, and "Un organetto suona per la via" stands out by virtue of the sheer beauty of the piano part. The later songs, some of which relate directly to Busoni's unfinished opera Doktor Faust, are in his expected mature, experimental style and are genuinely great songs -- if you've ever wondered where Kurt Weill "comes from," look no further. Nevertheless, the surprising thing is how much of the early songs, excepting Des Sänger's Fluch, have some bearing on Busoni's mature style. The content of this disc represents roughly half of Busoni's output in terms of solo song, and indeed it is a pity he did not contribute more efforts to the genre.
Bruns contributes a useful booklet note that evaluates the relative quality songs with candor and accuracy. Bruns understands the lieder thoroughly and isn't just singing this obscure music just for purposes of getting it onto a recording. Busoni, of course, was one of the greatest pianists of all time, and his accompaniments are anything but concise and simple. Accompanist Ulrich Eisenlohr, who is the director of Naxos' Deutsche Schubert Lied Edition, does a great job of making these busy piano parts sing and yet never gets in Bruns' way. On the back of the booklet is a link to a .pdf file of the texts, and you will want to look it up, particularly for Des Sänger's Fluch, which can be a long haul if you don't understand the lyrics. Although admittedly specialized, particularly for those who find listening to sung German difficult going, Ferruccio Busoni: Songs is an outstanding effort, a strong contribution toward expanding the knowledge base on Busoni, not to mention fast moving and entertaining in its own right.