Ferruccio Busoni’s only piano concerto (Opus 39) is something of a birdwatcher’s Spatuletail for the classical music concertgoer. Since its composition in 1939, few pianists have risen to the challenge of performing what many consider to be one of the most technically demanding works of the repertoire. For the first time since 1989, The Cleveland Orchestra with Garrick Ohlsson will mount what Busoni himself called “my skyscraper.” Along with a perspiring pianist, the 70-minute-long concerto calls for the massed forces of a full orchestra and men’s chorus (Franz Liszt would be green with envy). John Rockwell famously introduced the work with the parenthetical title “If Mahler had written a concerto” in his review of the New York Philharmonic’s 1991 performance.
For many critics, however, the work’s value ends with its acrobatics and fireworks. After its world premiere in 1904, one reporter in Berlin recalled that “Busoni showed up with a great piano concerto—or rather, a long and loud one.” After Pietro Scarpini’s 1966 performance of Op. 39 with The Cleveland Orchestra, Theodor Strongin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer similarly found little to praise beyond Scarpini’s seemingly effortless execution of the piece, writing that “for the entertainment-minded listener it is an absolute gas. But it is not good music by one million miles.” Perhaps the cruelest jab was that of Robert Finn, also of the Plain Dealer, who wrote that “[t]he one difficulty for the listener is that when Busoni wrote this extravaganza he was dead earnest—he actually thought of this gee whiz entertainment as a work of art!”
It was Bain Murray in 1966 for the Cleveland Press who resounded perhaps the most commonly raised complaint of Busoni’s work: that it comprises a “mere pastiche” of ideas as incoherent as they are brilliant. Indeed, the concerto explores a wide range of styles over the course of its five movements. A perspective like Murray’s might, however, speak in large part to a popularly fragmented picture of Busoni the composer. As is so often the case, artists are typified by the legacy of a single greatest hit. In the case of Busoni, the composer is remembered for transcribing countless works by J.S. Bach into bombastic concert transcriptions for the modern piano. Inasmuch as Busoni revered eighteenth-century greats, however, he also instigated the earliest blows to the tonal music tradition by promoting avant-garde mediums like atonal and electronic music and embracing the neoclassical aesthetic.
It comes as no surprise that Busoni’s concerto comes off as a snarl of cross-currents manifested in the rapid-fire stylistic shifts for which the work has been so derided, and when Busoni the Bach-transcriber comes to mind, one is tempted to join the naysayers and call Op. 39 a collage of the composer’s oldie favorites. But for Busoni, who at once occupied two very different compositional spheres, the assumption is dangerous. In light of the composer’s complex musical ideals, Op. 39 can be appreciated for its very contradictions, for gathering in itself the disparate—indeed, often irreconcilable—cultural aesthetics that forged Busoni’s own music. After all, Busoni wrote of the work: “I endeavored with this work to gather together the results of my manhood, and it represents the actual conclusion of it.”
Michael Quinn is a writer and research fellow in The Cleveland Orchestra Archives for the 2018/19 season. He is pursuing his masters in Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University.