Improvisation on a Bach Chorale for Two Pianos by Ferruccio Busoni

Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni (1886 – 1924) was a fine pianist, composer, conductor, writer, editor and educator. His compositions were largely neglected after his death until around the 1980s. A master piano teacher (his pupils included Egon Petri and Stanley Gardner), Busoni was regarded as an intellectual; a philosopher who was accustomed to thinking outside the box.

Amongst his large compositional output, the most fabled pieces are the gigantic Piano Concerto (1904) and the Fantasia Contrappuntistica (published in 1910). Also known for an impressive collection of transcriptions,  Busoni produced some of the most sympathetic piano arrangements of J S Bach’s compositions ever written. Particularly popular is the transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, and the Chorale Preludes, which are arranged using the full sonority of the piano, with a lush, full bloodied, Romantic semblance.

Busoni wrote copious piano works, many employing a distinctly contrapuntal style, which is perhaps inevitable considering his engagement and reverence to the music of the past, and particularly that of J S Bach. In 1907 he wrote a manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, which unlocks some of the keys to his ideas surrounding composition, including his three major aesthetic beliefs: essence, oneness and junge Klassizität (literally ‘young classicism’).

Works for two pianos include a couple of arrangements of compositions by W.A. Mozart: The Duettino Concertante (after the Finale of Piano Concerto No. 19  K.459), KiV B88, and the Fantasy for the Barrel-Organ in F minor (after K.608), KiV B91. Both works retain Mozart’s elegant textures and sparkling clarity whilst utilizing the piano fully.

An arrangement of the Fantasia Contrappuntistica  for two pianos was completed in 1921 (and published in 1922), and this mighty piece is undoubtedly Busoni’s most ambitious work, which serves as a ‘homage’ to  J S Bach’s Art of Fugue.

The other two piano piece inspired by and based on J S Bach is the Improvisation on the Bach Chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele” (BWV 517). Originally conceived as a set of variations which the composer had intended to be the last movement of his second violin sonata in 1900. However, when he came to arrange the work for two pianos, he felt it necessary to create a virtually new composition, partly due to the restrictions of turning the violin part into a second piano part. The Improvisation, which was completed in 1916, meanders chromatically around the Chorale theme, employing various impressive piano techniques and endless dynamic colour.

The following recording of the Improvisation on the Bach Chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele” (BWV 517), was made in 1996 (using a rather primitive home video recorder!) at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly in London at the Primavera Musicale Italiana Festival. The work is played by myself and my duo partner, Olga Balakleets, who is the founder and director of Ensemble Productions. Olga and I gave many recitals both on two pianos and four hands on one piano. We explored a varied repertoire from familiar compositions by Schubert and Mozart, to those by Busoni and Berio.

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