Busoni’s Concerto for Forte, in C. Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2017
Ferruccio Busoni’s 1904 piano concerto is an outsized work with half-a-dozen movements, a ferocious piano part, and a men’s chorus standing by throughout simply to add mysterious color to the finale.
Essayed on Friday afternoon by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Sakari Oramo on the podium and the fearless Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard, the concerto stands apart. Literally.
Built on ideas and architecture, Busoni created an edifice of music. He included pictures of his building in the score (and reprinted in the program). Kinda looks like the back of a dollar bill.
Harshly considered, one could say Busoni built only with bricks, and left out the decor. A true wag could say it’s a concerto for forte, not piano.
Let’s express it this way: it’s hard, and its tender moments evasive (even with 75 minutes to articulate them)—a stupendous challenge for the soloist. But even apart from its muscular energy, the concerto has some insightful, delicious sections, and its performance was a welcome addition to any engaged listener’s catalog of rarely heard works.
Gerstein deserves great gobs of appreciation for even attempting the piece. Few pianists alive have the stamina: Hamelin, Ohlsson, Oppens. Probably others, but not many. Smashing chord after forte arpeggio after presto run, it starts out loud and fast and largely stays there.
Its crazed structure includes five movements, including a second movement scherzo, a third movement centerpiece that actually has three separate moods of its own, a tarantella fifth movement that could easily stand on its own as a concert overture, and the finale, a shooting star from a distant galaxy, with the gallant chorus singing praise to Allah from a Danish poet’s drama about Aladdin. Makes you tired just thinking about all that.
Getting the body ready had to take some extra training (not just practice, training). Gerstein made music out of most of it, which was the true surprise and delight.
Most of that came in the middle section, Pezzo serioso, with an introduction and three “Pars”—Primo, Altera, and Ultima. The low strings intro’d the movement, with the winds—no soloist. A fanfare called him to attention. The heavily arpeggiated Prima ended with a breathtaking duet with timpani; a giant tam-tam blow figures in the Altera, perhaps a climactic idea in the composer’s head.
The tarantella (All’Italiana) has everything a dance movement should have—energy, rhythmic flow, melodic allure. The finale completes the “you’ll never hear anything like this” sensation, sung beautifully, a forceful non sequitur.
The program began with Sibelius’s easygoing third symphony. No lives were changed.
CADENCES: Karl Muck, eventually to be the BSO music director, conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the premiere of the Busoni concerto in 1904; the composer played his own fearsome solo part. In subsequent performances Busoni usually conducted and left the mountainous soloing to others. Am I alone in thinking that Alvin Curran might have channeled this piece when writing “Hope Street Tunnel Blues”? Oramo, otherwise traditionally dressed, sported a canary yellow pocket square. Some meaning out there? Lightly attended concert, with the BSO opening on a rare Friday afternoon and the weather not so conducive to traveling. One of the best parts of having Sibelius 3 on the program was getting to read Michael Steinberg’s program notes again. Like Socrates said of Plato, wherever you’re going, you meet him coming back.
This Boston Symphony Orchestra performance repeats only once: Saturday evening at 8 p.m. 888-266-1200; bso.org