Concert Review: Sibelius and Busoni at Symphony Hall

In the Piano Concerto, Ferruccio Busoni seemed to want to have the final word in the tradition of the Romantic concerto, thus it’s filled with just about every device and cliché found from Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Rachmaninoff.

Pianist Photo: Winslow Townson

Pianist Kirill Gerstein and conductor Sakari Oramo perform Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Winslow Townson.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Some music you learn from having heard it played regularly. Other pieces you know only by reputation. Pretty much everything by Ferruccio Busoni, the visionary turn-of-the-20th-century German-Italian composer, falls into the latter category.

Especially his Piano Concerto.

Clocking in at nearly seventy-five minutes and calling for a huge orchestra, plus a male chorus (not to mention one of the most staggeringly difficult keyboard parts in the repertoire), Busoni’s 1904 masterpiece is a work that almost begs to be talked about rather than to be played. And it isn’t heard frequently: this weekend’s performances of it by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) were the ensemble’s first, ever.

Maybe that’s actually not so surprising. After all, the music’s scope and requirements are so enormous that Busoni, no pianistic slouch himself, preferred to cede the solo part to others and conduct it instead. He apparently referred to the piece as a “skyscraper concerto” and, while he probably had in mind a structure more like the Flatiron Building, comparisons with the Burj Khalifa aren’t entirely inappropriate: there simply isn’t anything else quite like it out there.

In the Piano Concerto, Busoni seemed to want to have the final word in the tradition of the Romantic concerto, thus it’s filled with just about every device and cliché found from Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Rachmaninoff. There are staggering octave runs; quicksilver, bravura scales; knotty tremolos and trills; big tunes and themes. The soloist has a few moments of respite, mostly in the outer movements; otherwise the writing requires Herculean stamina and concentration.

The Concerto’s five movements are each expansive; the middle one is almost a concerto in itself, with a substantial introduction followed by three contrasting sections/movements. Busoni’s piano writing draws on the virtuosity of Liszt and, to a lesser degree, Tchaikovsky. His symphonic conception derives from Wagner (which means there’s lots of Liszt in it, too), Mahler, and Strauss. The scoring is always pellucid, no where more so than in the stunning fourth-movement tarantella with its wash of Italianate tunes and Mediterranean flair. And there are all sorts of exotic touches, like the third-movement pseudo-Arabic melody that prefigures the choral finale (the “Prayer to Allah” from Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin and His Wondrous Lamp).

In truth, the Piano Concerto’s the sort of score you probably don’t want to hear too often, if only to help prolong the careers of the three or four pianists with the chops to do it any justice. Above all, it’s a special piece and readings of it ought to come with a sense of ceremony and occasion. In the hands of Kirill Gerstein, one of the most muscular yet poetic pianists of recent memory and this weekend’s soloist, Saturday’s performance demonstrated plenty of both.

Gerstein’s account of the solo part was consistently mighty and resonant. But it was also smartly shaped and thoughtfully phrased. The first movement flowed nobly, while the scherzo-ish second was droll and teeming with whimsy. Gerstein made the dark-hued, sprawling third sing and he was a spectacular showman in the brilliant fourth movement, “All’Italiana,” dispatching the music’s blistering runs with verve and ably tapping its reservoirs of charm and delirium.

Sakari Oramo, conducting the BSO for the first time since his debut with the orchestra in 2011, guided the ensemble in an accompaniment that was full of color and personality. A master of complex contemporary music, he was completely in his element presiding over this musical circus, at a few points even breaking into a one-footed dance during the Concerto’s jaunty second and fourth movements.

The BSO responded in kind, with playing of robust, Mahlerian intensity (and a bit of Respighi-ian grandiosity here and there). There were moments of spotty intonation in the third and fifth movements but, overall, the score’s many brilliant episodes (highlighted by Busoni’s crafty writing for winds and brass) came across strongly. Indeed, for sheer spectacle, Saturday’s reading featured the BSO at the top of its collective game.

The men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang powerfully in their short appearance in the finale, though their tone was a bit raw and German diction typically problematic (i.e. American-sounding).

On the podium, Oramo cuts a rather compact figure. But he’s not diminutive. Rather, he’s an intense and charismatic (and intensely charismatic) presence, making big, energetic gestures and cues. In Sibelius’s Symphony no. 3, which preceded the Busoni, Oramo was as involved a conductor as they come, shaping every phrase and signaling just about every entrance.

The result, though, was anything but fussy. Rather, Saturday’s was a tight, cool reading of Sibelius’s most abstract symphony. The outer movements, with their burnished lyricism, brought out some of the finest-blended playing between winds and brass the BSO’s delivered all season. And the haunting second, with its subtle rhythmic twists and mysteriously expressive middle section, shimmered like the Northern Lights.

In the event, the Sibelius proved a fresh and ideal counterpoint to the Busoni, which it postdates by just three years: an aesthetic contrast, certainly, but a companionable one, at that.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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