Busoni Concerto Is Handful; Gerstein Gives You Paws

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Busoni: Piano Concerto in C. Kirill Gerstein (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Sakari Oramo (conductor). Myrios Classics MYR024. Total Time: 71:29

DIGITAL REVIEW – In piano concerto land, Ferruccio Busoni’s contribution to a crowded field stands all by itself, a monument to serious extravagance at the turn of the 20th century. More than 70 minutes in length, it’s the longest piano concerto in the repertoire, and probably the strangest. Cast in five sprawling movements, the work is capped by a choral finale whose inclusion follows in the idiosyncratic footsteps of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, though all comparisons stop there. It’s a splendid piece – high-minded, at times playful, always headed somewhere, a vast summation of the Romantic piano era before World War I shook everything up.

Understandably, given the resources this super-concerto consumes, hardly anyone bothered to touch it for decades. The orchestral requirements are dauntingand only the most formidable pianists (as was Busoni in his time) with huge reserves of stamina need apply. The first recording wasn’t made until 1967 when pianist John Ogdon went into Abbey Road Studios with conductor and Busoni archivist Daniell Revenaugh and the Royal Philharmonic around the time the Beatles were recording “All You Need Is Love” there (yes, they did meet). Garrick Ohlsson and the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi made the first American recording 30 years ago (Telarc) – a good one – but the present live recording is the first to have been made in this country since then, and it’s perhaps the best yet.

The shape of the concerto is very clear and symmetrical. Movements one, three, and five are thoughtfully monumental (Busoni’s word was “tranquil” but that’s just part of the story), while the second and fourth movements are respectively whimsical and rhythmically energetic. Along with its gargantuan dimensions, there is a duality about the Busoni concerto that makes it even more intriguing: The weight of Busoni’s adopted Central European tradition clashes with his Italian roots. As a result, prior to the Germanic pomp of the choral summation, we get a delightful fourth movement tarantella scherzo based on Italian street songs that drove conservative critics crazy when the concerto was unveiled in 1904.

Kirill Gerstein has the technical goods in hand. (Marco Borggreve)

The alleged difficulties of the piano part don’t seem to faze Kirill Gerstein a bit; he provides the weight of mighty octaves and the lightness of touch as called for, making a unified arch out of the lengthy middle movement. The most immediately appealing section will undoubtedly be the tarantella movement, which Gerstein scampers through with tremendous drive and stabbing bass notes, exceeding both the Ohlsson and Ogdon recordings in that regard. Most impressive of all is the playing of the Boston Symphony under Sakari Oramo, with the characteristic rasp of the brasses in full bloom in the reverberant splendor of Symphony Hall.

The original pair of Ogdon LPs came in deluxe packaging – a boxed set with a lavish booklet of notes and photos. Likewise, as befitting an unusual recording event, the Gerstein-BSO performance is given special treatment: The disc comes in a slipcase with an 88-page book telling you all you might want to know about the concerto, and a lot more about Busoni himself.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.