Busoni as Pianist.
"What this artist has achieved in piano technique borders on the supernatural," Grigory Kogan writes of Busoni (p. 19), and indeed Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was one of the most technically brilliant pianists of his time. But his emotionally restrained and sometimes eccentric performances--in which he altered pitches, inserted extra repeats, and interpreted pieces in an idiosyncratic manner--were controversial. Despite the notoriety of his textual alterations among concert reviewers, few scholars have analyzed Busoni's performance style and technique in detail, in part because of the paucity or unreliability of primary source material.
There is only one surviving acoustic disc of Busoni playing ten piano miniatures, recorded in London in 1922 (or Columbia. dismissed by his own pupils and grandpupils as unrepresentative of his style. The many piano rolls made by Busoni cannot be relied upon to accurately depict tempo, pedaling, or dynamics; and subjective eyewitness accounts are sometimes unreliable.
Busoni as Pianist by Grigory Kogan (1901-1979), originally published in Russian (Ferruchcho Buzoni [Moscow: Muzyka, 1964]) and only recently translated into English, is therefore an invaluable contribution to scholarship about Busoni's pianism. Although music critics and scholars from Kogan's time to the present, such as Harold C. Schonberg (The. Great Pianists from Mozart to the. Present., 2d ed. [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987]), Larry Sitsky (Busoni and the Piano: The Works, The Writings, and The Recordings [New York: Greenwood Press, 1986]) and Kenneth Hamilton (After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008]) have included discussions of Busoni's piano playing on acoustic recordings or piano rolls within more general texts about Busoni's life and works or performance trends and traditions, Kogan's entire monograph is dedicated to Busoni's piano playing and piano technique.
Throughout eighteen brief chapters, Kogan skillfully draws upon piano rolls, reviews of Busoni's performances, and the one surviving acoustic disc recording, as well as Busoni's writings about piano playing and his didactic editions and compositions. The author thus addresses Busoni's interpretive and technical approaches from many different angles. He covers Busoni's development as an artist in chapters 1-3, concert programming in chapter 5, technique and interpretive style in chapters 4 and 6-14, and connections between Busoni's playing, aesthetics, and culture in the four concluding chapters.
Kogan mentions textual alterations of Busoni's that might have distracted scholars from probing deeper into the mechanism of his playing in chapters 6-7. He also discusses minor note changes in Busoni's piano roll of Liszt's Concert Paraphrase of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto for piano, S. 434, in chapter 10, documenting them with notated examples. Kogan connects Busoni's textual alterations with his aesthetics, which conflated practices of performance and composition. He considers the merits of many of the changes: "achievements that knocked the ground from under the 'literalists' ... [and] moments, when it seems that his genius suggested to him something better than what was in the original" (p. 29). He notes some of the less successful attempts as well, which he attributes to Busoni's lesser spiritual connection with certain composers or his own human inconsistency (pp. 30-31).
Yet Kogan hardly limits himself to considering Busoni's textual alterations. He also explores Busoni's technique and interpretive style--aspects of Busoni's pianism that have been less discussed in scholarship. Kogan specifically covers such topics as articulation, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, fingering, pedaling, and expression through analyses of Busoni's writings, music editions, compositions, concert reviews, and piano rolls. The author maintains that although Busoni used a variety of approaches at the piano, he favored a non-legato touch, which he considered to be natural or organic to the percussive piano. He also used sudden (rather than gradual) shifts of dynamics or tempo. Often criticized for being too cerebral, Busoni was quite a scholar, conducting research on the composers and compositions he performed. Yet as Kogan argues, Busoni's performances were not lacking in expressiveness. They simply exhibited a new conception of emotion that included not only tenderness or pathos, but also restraint, patience, and joy (p. 39). Tied to this interpretive approach, Busoni's concert programming was also novel and groundbreaking in that he featured unusual pieces as well as complete sets, opus numbers, or cycles, rather than assortments of miniatures or unrelated pieces as was more common in programs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Kogan claims that Busoni was innovative and forward-looking in his interpretations. He shows how Busoni departed from major schools of playing, such as that of Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), and from nineteenth-century styles more broadly associated with elegant and rounded phrasing, singing lines, frequent changes of dynamics and tempo, and sentimentality. Kogan provides one key comparative example that illustrates his points, an analysis of Busoni's and Annette Essipoff's (1851-1914) contrasting piano roll recordings of the Verdi-Liszt Rigoletto Concert Paraphrase for piano. Busoni made his roll in 1905 and Essipoff, a pupil of Leschetizky, made hers in 1906 (both using Welte-Mignon technology). Kogan notes that while Essipoff's interpretation was lyrical and expressive, Busoni's was dramatic. Essipoff created a pleasant tone poem, while Busoni differentiated each character through sharp contrasts in tempo and touch (p. 47).
The author discusses Busoni's piano playing with the insight of a performer, and his analyses are convincing overall. Nevertheless, the text should be read with a few cautions. His reliance on small fragments from concert reviews that are frequently lifted out of their original contexts and juxtaposed in long sentences makes it difficult to verify original meaning. An odd placement of endnotes in the middle of sentences or at the end of very long passages featuring multiple quotations, or the complete omission of citations altogether makes it impossible at times to determine the author, place, or date of many quotations. The following sentence provides but one example:
The reviewers term him a "great pianist-thinker," a "genius poet-thinker" of the piano. This intellectual side of his piano playing made him "always very interesting": "as it is very pleasurable to spend an evening with an intelligent person, one rushes to Busoni's concert, listening to him, yon always feel a keen interest in the artist's interpretation...." Always--even at unsuccessful moments, when the pianist is "unconvincing and only interesting, which he remains at any moment of his playing." (No endnote provided, p. 37)
Additionally, the brevity of each of the chapters precludes the kind of detail that Kogan's analyses need in order to be completely effective. For instance, in the comparison of Busoni's and Essipoff's parallel piano rolls in chapter 10, the analysis is just too short to cover aspects of phrasing, pedaling, and articulation. Given that this is the central case study of the book, the short length is surprising and renders the study less effective than it could have been. Kogan's discussion of fingering and phrasing in chapter 13, which lasts for only ten short paragraphs, could also have been expanded by using many more examples drawn from his editions and compositions.
Finally, the text is a product of its time. As the translator Svetlana Belsky notes, the final four chapters contain anachronistic material that has little to do with Busoni's pianism. The allusions to realism, Marxist doctrine, and capitalism distract from the main topic of the book.
Aside from these few weaknesses, Kogan's text offers valuable insight into Busoni's phenomenal technique and idiosyncratic interpretations. It is a "must read" for serious pianists, piano pedagogues, scholars of performance practice, Busoni scholars, and anyone interested in the historical development of interpretive styles, schools, and trends. Kogan's short but provocative chapters offer plenty of new insights, many of which could be profitably expanded upon and further investigated in future scholarship about Busoni as pianist. In particular, further and more lengthy comparative studies of piano rolls and more in-depth analysis of the Klavierubung, Busoni's encyclopedic multi-volume instructional method that Kogan only briefly mentions to illustrate Busoni's fingering preferences, could prove to be fruitful in further illuminating Busoni as pianist.
ERINN E. KNYT
University of Massachusetts, Amherst