ADOLF BUSCH: Complete Music for Solo Piano. Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 25. Suite, Op. 60b. Four Intermezzi, etc. Jakob Fichert, piano. Toccata Classics TOCC 0245. Total Time: 87:05.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW – Tulley Potter, in his biography of Adolf Busch, writes, “There is a 1906 photo of [Joseph] Joachim, two members of his quartet, and [Ernst von] Dohnányi playing chamber music in Bonn, with the 15-year-old Adolf Busch turning the pages for Dohnányi at the piano. This picture, taken in Beethoven’s home town, unites [Beethoven’s] greatest interpreter of the 19th century (Joachim) with his greatest interpreter of the 20th century (Busch).”
Thus Potter sets the stage, as it were, for this remarkable recording. One might question Potter’s extravagant praise of Adolf Busch (1891-1952), but there is no question that the young man went on to become one of the most eminent musicians of his time: Busch was in great demand as a solo violinist; he led the Busch Quartet, then among the foremost string quartets, for 30 years; he toured widely with pianist Rudolf Serkin, who also became his son-in-law; he founded the Lucerne Festival with his brother Fritz and Toscanini (1867-1957); and with Serkin he helped found the Marlboro Festival in Vermont just a year before he died.
In his spare time, this remarkable artist composed music of all kinds from symphonic and chamber music to works for his own instrument. He also wrote for the piano, and this new recording brings together everything he composed for that instrument. Incredibly, this is the first time that any of these pieces has been commercially recorded, and many of them are well worth hearing.
Most of the fourteen pieces gathered here are short, the most substantial being the 32-minute Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 25, which was given its first performance in 1922 by then 19-year-old Rudolf Serkin in his Berlin recital debut. Serkin continued to perform the sonata throughout his career.
Although the first movement of the sonata is rather dark and thorny, it does have some soothing Brahmsian material that offers a welcome contrast. The second movement is a theme and variations, in which the theme and first four variations act as a slow movement, and the succeeding variations as a scherzo. The climax of the last movement – a complex fugue involving no fewer than four themes, including a recurrence of the second movement theme – seems to me too brief to be fully effective and the movement as a whole seems to end too abruptly; that said, this is, on the whole, an impressive piece that deserves to be played more often. Although pianist Jakob Fichert gives a good performance, ideally one would like to hear it played with more drive and passion. Unfortunately, Serkin never recorded it.
Among the shorter pieces on this CD are two little gems from the 1940s with unusual titles. The first of these, Allegro bizarro, BoO 21, offers surprising twists and turns as befits its title, and the second, Allegro vehemente, BoO 32, was written for Busch’s wife Frieda, who was in the last stages of a terminal illness. Its outer sections seem joyful, while the quieter middle section reminds us once again of the autumnal music of Brahms.
Listening to all of these piano pieces, which cover a period of 44 years of Busch’s life (1908 to 1952), one gets a pretty clear picture of the composer. The influence of Bach is strongly evident in Busch’s predilection for intricate counterpoint and elaborate fugal structures. That he was a leading interpreter of the music of Bach, including the works for solo violin and the Brandenburg Concertos, surely informed his own compositions.
In his youth, he befriended the older German composer Max Reger and became an exponent of Reger’s Violin Concerto, so it might be fair to say that Busch the composer was also strongly influenced by Reger. Another great influence surely was Brahms. Too young to have known Brahms personally, he certainly knew many musicians who had been close to the composer – above all Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote many of his works for violin. Time and again in his piano pieces, Busch comes close to quoting Brahms in quiet chordal sequences.
Many of the pieces were written for Rudolf Serkin, one of whose outstanding characteristics as an artist was intensity. I have no way of knowing how Serkin played his father-in-law’s music, but I suspect that he played it as he played everything else – as if his life depended on it. While Fichert, currently Principal Lecturer in Piano at Leeds College of Music, does not display that abandon, he deserves great credit for doing so much to promote Busch’s music through his performances and for the illuminating notes accompanying this CD.
Tully Potter made it his life’s work to document the life of Adolf Busch in his book Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician. A massive tome of 1,419 pages, it is available now in a two-volume edition from Toccata Press. Martin Anderson, founder and guiding light of both Toccata Press and Toccata Classics, has made it one of his priorities to keep Adolf Busch’s memory alive. In addition to the present release of a CD devoted to Busch’s piano music, Toccata Classics has released two volumes of Busch’s chamber works: (TOCC 0085) music for clarinet and strings and (TOCC 0293) music for clarinet with a variety of other instruments.
This new release on Toccata Classics is not only an important addition to the recorded legacy of Adolf Busch, it also has the distinction of containing more music – total time is more than 87 minutes – than almost any other CD recording in existence.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.