BUSONI:  Concerto in C major for Piano and Male Chorus, Op. 39
Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano/City of Birmingham Symphony Orch. & Male Chorus/
Mark Elder, cond.

HYPERION CDA 67143  (F) (DDD)  TT:  73:48

Ferruccio Busoni's five-movement concerto for the instrument he played with storied virtuosity is not quite the singular achievement that commonspeak claims. Music for piano, chorus and orchestra goes back to Beethoven and the so-called Choral Fantasy of 1808 (which proved to be a trial run for the finale of his Ninth Symphony, minus piano), while Vaughan Williams came up (empty) with a similar concoction in 1949, called Fantasia (quasi variazioni) on the "Old 104th" Psalm Tune. Both, in other words, elaborate sets of variations. But Busoni's Concerto—nearly 75 minutes in length—is a large scale symphonic work he began thinking about in 1882, at the age of 16, but didn't complete until 1904, by which time he was well into his 39th year.

Its first recording was made for EMI in the late 'Î50s by John Ogdon, with Daniel Ravenaugh conducting the Royal Philharmonic (a treasury-type reissue omits Busoni's orchestral pieces that once occupied side 4 of the original SD set). It was how everyone of my generation learned a work we'd only read about pro and con, one that excited us albeit with reservations, in the way Hermann Scherchen's early recording of Berlioz's Les troyennes à Carthage did—there were no other standards for judgment at the time. The late Ogdon's playing remains formidable today, but American-born Ravenaugh (if memory doesn't trick me) disappeared afterwards, never to be heard from again on discs. His good intentions couldn't tame this behemoth in the clinches.

Skip forward nearly 30 years to Baden-Baden, where David Lively lived up to his surname in a glittering performance with Michael Gielen (a Busoni votary) conducting the Southwest German Radio Orchestra and Chorus in a studio recording issued on Koch-Schwann. Garrick Ohlsson recorded it subsequently for Telarc, with characteristic stolidity, abetted but not enlivened by the Cleveland Orchestra and Male Chorus under Christoph von Dohnányi. This like the superior Lively/Gielen is gone from Schwann Opus, leaving only a performance by "F.J. Thiollier" with Michael Schönwandt conducting the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra on Kontrapunkt.  Wanna bet, sound unheard, that it's a noncontender?

Now to rescue rides Marc-André Hamelin, vividly partnered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Men's Chorus under their principal guest conductor, Mark Elder. Add a marvelously spacious recording, at the same time rich in detail and incisive where asked for, from Tonmeister Tony Faulkner with Andrew Keener producing. It is a knockout of a performance and recording. But even more significantly, it validates Busoni's grand vision. Surprise! The piece isn't boring at all, or The Ponderosa, which Ohlsson kept reminding me of. And the fourth movement, Allâ italiana (Tarantella), could get regular radio play. The last movement, Cantico, has a "mystic hymn to Allah" from the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger's play Aladdin—the same that Carl Nielsen wrote incidental music for, just as full of fantasy but not comparably philosophical (if indeed music can be philosophical).

All the movements tie together, Liszt-fashion, in a prize package when performers of this caliber light fuse after fuse until the sky becomes a fireworks' show. Hyperion's copyright date may be 1999, but the achievement is millennial as an homage to Busoni, never a mainstream composer, but not for lack of intelligence, intellect, generosity of spirit, or harmonic surprises unending.

R.D. (Jan. 2000)