Album review: Busoni’s reflections of Bach in vivid double portrait by Chiyan Wong

The process of rediscovering the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for public performance in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted in a network of intriguing and often curious endeavors of editing the original text to suit the current tastes and tendencies, or, in more practical terms, to adapt the music written for ecclesial services, coffee houses and private chambers for the concert hall.

For a contemporary listener, well-attuned to the historically informed practices of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Paul McCreesh, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Mahan Esfahani and many other professionals on the top of their game, the reworkings of Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler or Leopold Stokowski may come off as quaint distortions of the original sonic image.

On the other hand, many of these Bach editions shed fascinating light on the editors themselves. Mendelssohn’s1829 version of St Matthew Passion is perhaps mainly interesting as a portrait of the enthusiastic young composer. In similar vein, Mahler’s Bach-Suite of 1910 makes a great companion piece to the composer’s Fifth Symphony (1902-03) and so forth.

Among all the editors, Ferruccio Busoni’s astounding 25-volume edition of Bach’s keyboard works, devised for Breitkopf & Härtel (1894, 1914-21), constitutes a universe of its own. The star burning brightest among Busoni’s adaptations is, without question, his 1914 edition of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741).

On his new album for Linn records, pianist Chiyan Wong presents us with the Busoni version of the Air with Thirty Variations. Coupled with Busoni’s spellbinding Sonatina in diem Nativitas Christi (1917) and his marvellous 1893 adaptation of Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720).

To pursue the exchange between Bach and his performers even further, Chiyan Wong’s delightful Inversion of Variation 15 (Canone alla quinta) from the Goldberg Variations makes an appearance on the disc too, as a befitting encore for the Busoni edition of the score.

While a Bach purist might dismiss the album as mere tinkering or even blasphemy, for a Busoni enthusiast, the disc is an unmissable feast. Chiyan’s spirited performances shed an invigorating light on Busoni’s unique vision of Bach, in all of its allure and provocation.

In his quest for ”rescuing the remarkable work for the concert hall” Busoni reworked Bach’s original text of the Goldberg Variations to better suit the sociology of the early twentieth century concert-going. Embellished with pianistic virtuosity, shortened here, expanded there, Busoni’s edition needs, and deserves, contextualization, in order to be appreciated in full.

For whatever one may think of Busoni’s work, its artistic integrity cannot be denied. His Golberg Variations remain true to the core idea of presenting Bach through the early twentieth century looking-glass, coming into terms with the styles and venues of the era, in many ways opposite to those of Bach’s.

Keeping up with the spirit of Busoni’s edition, Chiyan bestows some further modifications here and there, ending up with an entity of undeniable musical appeal.

Chiyan Wong portrait by © Scott Lau

For a listener, both agreeing and disagreeing with the musical text are among the peculiar joys of the Busoni edition. Listening to the disc over and over, Chiyan’s dedicated performance keeps one engaged in musical argument, one Bach himself would surely have thoroughly enjoyed.

The other Busoni adaptation on the disc, the Chaconne, reworks Bach’s violin original into a tumultuous fifteen-minute fantasia for keyboard. Vehement and showy, it may lack the finesse of Bach’s Urtext, but its sheer outrageous steadfastness comes off winning, resulting in a late nineteenth century Bachian dreamscape.

Performed with a formidable combination of enthralling expression and compelling sense of architecture, the Chaconne is a disarmingly lovable oddity, which makes a befitting closing track for the marvellous album.

Bookended between the two Bach editions, Busoni’s Sonatina in diem Nativitas Christi, written in four days while the composer was staying in Zurich during the Great War. A Christmas pastoral of sorts, the seven-minute score yearns for serenity, with its glimmering textures bearing an aura of mystery and joy of the Nativity, pre-echoing Messiaen, both in spirit and texture, at least en passant.

Well-served by Chiyan’s fine performance, the Sonatina, despite its brevity, forms the gravitational centre of the album. Within its microcosm, a musical realm of jewel-like precision arises, enchanting the listener with its dazzling sonorities.

Following the performance of the Goldberg Variations, Chiyan’sbrief musical study Inversion of Variation 15 (Canone alla quinta) provides the listener with further reflection on the Bachian realm in the guise of an inspiring encore.

In its entirety, the album, with its ’text and commentary’ appeal, results in an imaginative double portrait of Bach and Busoni. A disc hugely benefitting from repeated iterations, it is not one for casual listening. A devoted recording for devoted listener, it is definitely a journey worth taking.

Chiyan Wong, piano

Johann Sebastian Bach / Ferruccio Busoni: Goldberg Variations (Air with Thirty Variations), BWV 988 (1741/1914)

Chiyan Wong: Inversion of Variation 15 (Canone alla quinta) from the Goldberg Variations

Ferruccio Busoni: Sonatina in diem Nativitas Christi (1917)

Johann Sebastian Bach / Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne from Partita for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720/1893)

Recorded in St George’s Bristol (Goldberg Variations) on 18 April 2019 and Royal Academy of Music, London on 11 October 2019 

Linn Records CKD 598 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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