The field of modern digital renderings of piano rolls of the 1910s and 1920s is quite new; Britain's Dal Segno label has been among the leading experimenters, presenting recordings by many of the famed composers and virtuosi of the day. It is strange to hear such old recordings rendered without any noise, and much about the interpretations is fascinating. The rolls nevertheless have their limitations, especially in the area of dynamics. They're a bit like old photographs that have a lot of detail but are shaded with a tinge that permeates the whole. Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, a musical thinker thoroughly oriented toward the future, not only consented to make rolls but did so enthusiastically, recording some 60 of them before his death in 1924. The selection heard here is generally exciting. The booklet may direct the listener toward the dynamic range of the Liszt "Will o' the Wisp" Transcendental Etude (track 2), but that doesn't mean the range is really audible here, even as much as on a 78 rpm record. Things improve rapidly after the three Liszt selections, however (and even at the end of the Liszt section, where Busoni adds his own cadenza to the Polonaise in E major). Busoni is putatively performing the works of other composers rather than his own, but his arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach's Sonata No. 3 for solo violin in D minor is ambivalent enough in its relationship to its model that one might think of it as an original work. With Bach the dynamics matter less than tempo and articulation, which is surprisingly well rendered by this 1914 roll. Busoni's performance of his arrangement can stand with any ever made: shifting tempos conspire with shifting textures (the heavily pedaled rhapsodic section at the end is extreme but has been thoroughly prepared by what has gone before) to produce a thrilling exposition of Bach's work. The Chopin Preludes of Op. 28, little self-contained harmonic-textural ideas, also fare well in this context; Busoni's interpretations are oriented toward Chopin's polyphonic ideas, and the lack of a real pianissimo is missed only at a few points. Many give insights into just how free Busoni's playing could be -- hear the way the half-cadences are speeded up in the famous Prelude in E minor, Op. 28/4 (track 8), and how the entire performance is structured around this unorthodox detail. The Prelude in C minor, Op. 28/20 (track 23) is another eyebrow-raiser. Probably thanks to Busoni's own insights, this set of works comes out very well on piano rolls, and this is among the most successful disc in Dal Segno's series. Highly recommended for Busoni fans, those interested in piano rolls, and historical-recording enthusiasts in general.
The Great Pianists, Vol. 3: Ferruccio Busoni Review
by James Manheim
|Preludes (24) for piano, Op. 28, CT. 166-189|