Friday, November 21, 2014

Busoni Piano Concerto dazzles a full house at Kennedy Center NSO concert

The National Symphony Orchestra at Kennedy Center in Washington DC presented one of this season’s most important concerts, starting Thursday November 20, 2014, before a completely sold-out audience, at the earlier 7 PM starting time, with a “Afterword” QA.  The conductor was Rossen Milanov.
Let’s to the meat course right away. That was the 65-minute Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39, by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), known superficially for his transcriptions of Bach, but also a pivotal figure in the transition from post-romanticism to modernism and sometimes atonality.  Busoni was another influence on Schoenberg.  His music fused both Italian (operatic) and German romanticism, which he tried to bring to a head with this massive five-minute work in 1904, at the age of 38. The pianist was Garrick Ohlsson. This is the only piano concerto with a choral part (unless you count the Beethoven Choral Fantasy), and the only longer piano concerto is Wilhelm Furtwangler's.  
Busoni viewed the piece as a “skyscraper”, with a musical progression of architectural forms.  Yet, the piece also bears some relation to the Liszt B Minor sonata, and Busoni probably knew of Eugen d’Albert’s massive first concerto (a teen work, covered here elsewhere) so obviously inspired by the same Liszt work.

The first movement, according to the program notes, is free form, and is marked as “Prologue and Introduction”.  Actually, it has a classical orchestral ritornel, and when the piano joins, it migrates to G, as if a normal exposition of three interrelated chorale-like themes, in moderate tempo.  A development and recapitulation follow, to a quiet ending.
The second movement, a “playful piece”, is the first of two scherzos, and seems to be centered around B Minor.  Like Mahler (in the 7th Symphony), Busoni is offering more than one scherzo, and like both Bruckner and Mahler, he takes the form to its ultimate. 
The third movement, “serious piece”, seems to be in D-flat, and is a huge slow movement (25 minutes), with a rondo-Sonata like form.  After an opening that sounds ambiguous, it settles into a well known 4-note “cathedral” theme.  As with Bruckner, you don’t have a huge slow movement in this key without some violent climaxes (did Busoni know the Eighth?) By now the effect of the piano part, which sounds more like a collaborative instrument than a true soloist, has become apparent.  
That aspect of the writing (which Busoni shares with Brahms) is so even though Busoni uses a lot of mannerisms known from Liszt.  After one last outburst in the recapitulation, the movement subsides into peace.
The fourth movement, a second scherzo, is  wild tarantella in C. It may be the best known part of the work.  Toward the end, the movement has abrupt tempo changes and modulations that are most effective. 
The finale brings in the male chorus, singing text (in German) from Adam Oehlensclager’s drama “Alladin”, which mentions Allah, as a God of all monotheistic faith, not of radical Islam as it is today (sometimes).  The music and verse is Catholic, Jewish and Islamic at the same time.  The men’s chorus is handled in a manner that recall’s Liszt’s “A Faust Symphony”.  Finally, the chorus concludes on a C Major triad, and the piano and orchestra race to a whirlwind close fortissimo, recalling both the opening theme of the concerto and the tarantella dance.

Busoni also composed a 15-minute "Konzertstuck" in D Minor (with a major conclusion) which would normally be a concerto in its own right.  
The QA mentioned some piano concerto other works:  Medtner, d'Albert (me), Scriabin, Justin Dello Joio (commissioned work, the son of Norman) and Huw Warren.
The first half of the concert comprised the “Firebird Suite” of Igor Stravinsky (1919 revision).  There are seven sections to the suite, and the best known is the majestic B Major conclusion, which is sometimes even played in discos.  This first ballet shows the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, and it kept its modernism under control, for the benefit of 1909 audiences.  I personally prefer to see complete works performed than suites, although here that would make for a long concert.
The Millennium Stage, at 6 PM, offered a free concert of its own, with the Air Force Chamber String Ensemble.  The repertoire featured French impressionism.  One work was the 1904 “Dances for String Quartet and Harp” (Sacred and Profane) by Claude Debussy, which sound a bit laid back to me.  But the treat was Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World” (“La creation du monde”), a 20-minute ballet composed in 1922.  The music has a lot of jazz and reminds one of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.  The work was a particular favorite of a late friend in Falls Church VA, Charles Hailey, who passed in 2011, whom I knew through the First Baptist Church of Washington DC, and in whose home I spent many evenings in my 20s listening to his records.   The work attracted a lot attention in the early days of stereo and hi-fi in the 1950s.  

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