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NSO, Garrick Ohlsson in superb Busoni piano concerto

Written By | Nov 23, 2014

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2014 – After last weekend’s “Rite of Spring” tsunami, this week’s NSO concerts not only added Stravinsky’s popular “Firebird Suite” (1919 version) to the menu. Under the baton of guest conductor Rossen Milanov, the NSO also presented Ferruccio Busoni’s massive and rarely performed piano concerto. These Kennedy Center Concert Hall performances featured Garrick Ohlsson as the piano soloist and included the Washington Men’s Camerata in the finale.

Saturday’s concert opened with a crisp, sweeping performance of “The Firebird Suite,” a selection of dances from the Stravinsky ballet that first put that struggling young Russian composer on the musical map as a major talent.

The 1919 version of the suite was what weekend’s audiences heard in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Maestro Milanov—the conductor-designate of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra—guided the NSO through an evocative interpretation of the work, particularly its slashing “Infernal Dance” and its grand, brassy, triumphant finale.

Conductor Rossen Milanov. (Via Mr. Milanov's PR agency)

Conductor Rossen Milanov. (Via Mr. Milanov’s PR agency)

But the main event on this weekend’s NSO program was Busoni’s epic piano concerto. It’s a major early 20th century work that was first performed in 1904. But since then, it has, astonishingly, been regarded at least by some as a mere musical curiosity.

Like nearly all Mahler’s symphonies and most of Bruckner’s, the Busoni concerto is an example of late-Romantic gigantism: the attempt by certain composers to compress the entirety of human experience into a musical dwarf star set to explode like a big bang, creating a new artistic universe in the process.

But while Mahler and Bruckner gradually won acceptance on concert programs, the Busoni concerto, a contemporary of several Mahler symphonies, never has.

In the first place, the Busoni concerto is not nearly as well organized as a Mahler symphony. In some ways, it reminds us of Schumann’s description of Chopin’s 4-movement “Funeral March” Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor as “the joining together of four of Chopin’s maddest children”—save for Busoni’s adding a fifth child to his concerto via that choral finale.

The second and perhaps bigger problem with the Busoni is that it requires a pianist with the stamina of a long-distance running to perform it, not to mention the time that pianist must take to learn and perfect it. The Busoni is a long work—some 70-75 minutes depending on the temps chosen—loaded with cascading passagework and huge, pounding chords. It’s not something one can pick up quickly or perform off the cuff

In short, it’s a killer, and it’s a major career decision for any pianist who might want to take it on. Most pianists don’t bother.

Photo of composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, circa 1895.

Photo of composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, circa 1895. (Public domain photo, Library of Congress)

We read in the current NSO program that the orchestra last performed the Busoni over 70 years ago in 1943 and likely without the choral finale. That’s pretty much how it goes with most orchestras today when it comes to this concerto.

The Busoni concerto’s five movements are often creatures unto themselves. The initial “Prologo e Introito” is pretty much that—an exposition of moods and motifs we hear again later in the work on a sporadic basis. The second movement functions like a conventional scherzo in many ways, loping around in an offbeat, almost jazzy way, punctuated by unexpected bits of percussion.

The third movement, by far the longest and most pensive, meanders along through several thematic layers. It’s Busoni at his most serious, but perhaps not at his organizational best, although a lot of planning seems to have been involved in its shaping.

Next up is the wildly clattering “All’Italiana” This tarantella of fireworks and dazzle for both the pianist and the orchestra suddenly erupts alternating Roman Candles of pure fun with an occasional stick of percussive dynamite. In and of itself, it could possibly stand alone on a concert program and certainly has the feel of a finale.

But instead, as the fireworks suddenly fade, both the pianist and the orchestra transist without pause, via a short, pizzicato bridge passage, into the concerto’s real finale, an unexpected hymn to creation—sung by the male chorus—whose quasi-religious text gives credit not to God but to Allah.

Given current world politics, this seeming Islamic shift seems a bit strange. But it’s all a matter of context. The poetry Busoni set to music in 1904 was a short excerpt from “Aladdin,” a drama by 19th century Danish poet-dramatist Adam Oehlenschläger. It was in turn based on the “1001 Nights,” whose mythic qualities, rather than the then seemingly quaint and exotic religion of Islam, were attractions for many a Romantic writer.

With music borrowed from a never-completed opera, Busoni concludes his concerto with this hymn to divine creation, perhaps in this case, referring to the divine impulse seen behind the creation of art. It is a weirdly inspired way to end the concerto, even though it seems to have been tacked on as the composer struggled to complete the work.

Both the NSO and Mr. Ohlsson treated this weekend’s audiences to something that gets very close to a definitive performance of the concerto.

Yes, there were unwieldy bits here and there, including occasional slips in the horns and in the winds. Busoni’s already variable tempos were also not always in synch. And Mr. Ohlsson did drop a few notes, particularly in the early going, although given the gigabits of notes the soloist must battle in this score, any minor errors here were statistically insignificant.

Through it all, the spectacular virtuoso qualities of this concerto shone through in this performance. Busoni himself was an excellent pianist who clearly admired both the music and the musicianship of the greatest pianist-composer of his era, Franz Liszt. It followed then that Busoni’s own concerto would be something of an homage to virtuosic greatness, which it certainly was and is.

For his part, Mr. Ohlsson was a genuine phenomenon. He proved he owns this concerto, and can likely pick and choose where and when he will play it again.

Save for brand new piano concertos, most professional pianists play concertos from memory. But performing something as long and complex as the Busoni from memory is above and beyond the call of duty. Yet that’s precisely what Mr. Ohlsson did. He earns a big hat tip for that alone.

Building on that, Mr. Ohlsson also knew where he was going at all times. He had a game plan, a musical road map that for the most part merged seamlessly with Maestro Milanov’s vision and with the orchestra’s execution. In addition, the Washington Men’s Camerata added considerable value to the finale, save for a brief weak patch in an exposed tenor part.

Kudos to all.

The Busoni piano concerto is one of those neglected works like Szymanowski’s “Concert Overture” or Griffes’ “Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan” or Jánaček’s sweeping “Glagolitic Mass,” or even Felix Mendessohn’s epic Second Symphony, which we ourselves heard for the very first time when the NSO offered it earlier this season. Why do these works vanish? God knows though we can guess.

Such relative unknowns are often innovative works from the not-too-distant past that have somehow been largely forgotten or so rarely performed today they might as well be new.

Audiences should seriously consider being a bit more willing to encounter such musical odd birds when they chance to show up on an upcoming program. They can turn out to be delightfully rewarding surprises.

Indeed, upon leaving the hall to head back to the car, we overheard several different concertgoers exclaim to their companions, “I really enjoyed that,” “that was much better than I thought it would be,” and “gee, that was really fun.”

Well, it was.


Rating: *** ½ (3.5 out of 4 stars)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17