Busoni is a great baffler. One of the most interesting musical minds of his time – the only pianist that Mahler considered an intellectual equal – his music so often falls short of his written ideas that one is tempted to dismiss both as inconsequential. Yet there is always something in Busoni that draws you back, just in case you missed the point first time round.
The piano concerto, premiered by the composer in 1904, is a case in point. It sounds for the most part like an overlong symphony – 72 minutes, for heaven’s sake – in which the pianist acts as a kind of sports commentator, interjecting sage locutions amid the action. I’m tempted to put on a performance without the piano to see if the substance stacks up.
The main chunk is the 23-minute middle movement, marked ‘pezzo serioso’ and managing to be both thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. Kirill Gerstein give it all he has got, which is quite a lot. Less thunderous than John Ogdon, more lyrical than Garrick Ohlssohn, he conveys a sense of a great mind in a time of change searching for a middle road between overblown romanticism and dry modernism – but still ending up losing sight of the end of the road.
The Boston Symphony play wonderfully for Sakari Oramo and the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will blow your ears off in the reactionary finale. Of the half-dozen recordings that I know of this work, this is by far the best-sounding.