Ju-Ying Song is a piano virtuoso of titanic ability who has managed to find the time to also acquire a degree in microbiology from Stanford. This is an intelligent way to go for a prospective musician, as music itself is such an unpredictable career choice that it is good to have some measure of backup in case things don't pan out. In Song's case, however, her music-making has been adjudged in such high regard that she hasn't needed to trade in the piano for a lab coat just yet; she is a piano professor at Mannes School of Music and still plays recitals, though this has not led to an over-busy recording career by any means. This Pro Piano release, Liszt & Busoni, is one of her best; subtitled "…and that is death," the program deals with the prominence of the grim reaper in works of these composers. Liszt's Totentanz is heard in its rarely recorded version for solo piano, and his La Lugubre Gondola II is one of several pieces that Liszt wrote inspired by witnessing the procession of Richard Wagner's funeral gondola in Venice. Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse and Fantasia nach J.S. Bach were written in memory of his mother and father, respectively, whereas his brilliant Variations (10) on a Prelude by Chopin is based on a motive borrowed from Chopin's C minor Prelude that has often been associated with matters relating to the grave, even though Chopin did not specify so, as he did in the "Funeral March" of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. Busoni essentially composed this variation set twice, once in youth and another time in his later years; Song plays the more difficult, and more commonly heard, second version.
All of these pieces are written at an extremely high level of difficulty and can often sound dense and immoderate under the wrong hands; Song plays them all cleanly, accurately, and with precision, emphasizing clarity in the many-voiced texture and delivering these works in a manner that makes them feel lighter than they usually sound. She also finds ample room for expressiveness of touch; while there isn't a lot of that in the generally loud war-horse Totentanz, she manages to hold back in just the right spots to emphasize the moments of poetry amid Liszt's apocalyptic vision. Like Busoni's Chopin Variations, La Lugubre Gondola was a work Liszt composed more than one time, leaving a version in 6/8 and one in 4/4; Song's interpretation is noteworthy for its great flexibility and careful examination of the phrase-lengths in the piece. It is longer by a minute than the average recording of this piece and well takes advantage of that additional time in terms of expression. Song is aided by the knowing ears of her production team, Pro Piano head Ricard de la Rosa and fellow pianist Chitose Okashiro, who understand what to expect out of a piano and how to capture it best in recorded sound; the piano literally seems to float and hover in air at the start of Busoni's Berceuse in a magical effect that is not artificial. If you've ever played a well-cared for Steinway you know how that phenomenon can arise, seemingly nearly on its own, but recording that is another matter. Everything about Liszt & Busoni is completely satisfactory, and if you love the piano, this repertoire, or both, you won't want to be without it.