Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Thank goodness Busoni’s Piano Concerto is returning to the Proms

On 5 August, piano virtuoso Benjamin Grosvenor will take the stage to perform the thrillingly complex piece

‘The perfect choice of soloist for the Proms’: Benjamin Grosvenor (Credit: Chris Christodoulou)

On 5 August, Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto will be performed at the Proms for only the second time. It should have been the third time, but a Musician’s Union strike in 1980 forced the cancellation of the concert at which Martin Jones had been booked to give the première. Jones is a fearless virtuoso, still recording in his eighties, but one can’t help wondering whether his disappointment back then was tinged with relief.

In one place, the soloist’s fingers must wrap themselves around 128 notes in a single bar

Garrick Ohlsson, a long-time champion of the work, describes its difficulties as ‘absolutely immense, and 25 per cent of this piece is the most cruelly difficult writing in any piano concerto’. In one place, the soloist’s fingers must wrap themselves around 128 notes in a single bar. Also, it lasts more than 70 minutes. No wonder it hasn’t been heard at the Proms since 1988, when Peter Donohoe’s performance with Sir Mark Elder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra created such a sensation that EMI issued it as a CD.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Busoni’s death, and 31-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor is surely the perfect choice of soloist for the Proms. No other British pianist of his generation can match his combination of super-virtuosity and interpretative subtlety. But it will also be a test for Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, because the work morphs from a showpiece concerto to a mega-symphony in which the piano is sentenced to long stretches of obbligato. The last of its five movements intrudes a male chorus singing from Adam Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin:

Lift up your hearts to the power eternal, 
Feel Allah’s presence, behold all his works!             
Thus the dead world comes completely to life.               
Praising divinity, the poem falls quiet!

You may wonder if any other composer would have ended a piano concerto with a choral hymn to Allah. Strangely, someone already had: the rondo of the Sixth Concerto by the minor Austrian composer Henri Herz, written in 1858, includes a chorus featuring the words ‘gloire au prophète Allah’. I can’t find any evidence that Busoni knew it. Even if he did, it doesn’t explain the weirdness of his own finale.

It’s putting it mildly to say that critics disagree about Busoni’s ‘skyscraper’, as he described it. Harriet Smith, Gramophone’s piano specialist, nominates it as ‘my own desert island piano concerto’. Alfred Brendel calls it ‘monstrously overwritten’, and blames its rediscovery on ‘the vogue for Victorian or Edwardian curiosities’. Yet no one writes off Busoni as a curiosity, least of all Brendel. He thinks the concerto obstructs our view of ‘his superlative late piano music’ and his last opera, Doktor Faust, ‘towering over the musical theatre of its time alongside the works of Berg and Schoenberg’.

It might seem odd to mention Busoni, who even today is best-known for his calorific Bach transcriptions, in the same breath as the Second Viennese School. But few composers are more resistant to classification. The Piano Concerto of 1904 can indeed seem overblown because it predates an extraordinary refinement of his aesthetic. His late works can be simultaneously hallucinatory and rigorous: the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which he conceded was too dense for ten fingers and so arranged for two pianos, dares to toy with a completion of Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Busoni’s reputation as a composer is surprisingly fragile, given the fertility of his imagination and the audacity of his thought: for example, he had a theory that scales could be expanded by microtones that even Schoenberg advised him was impractical. Everything about him is paradoxical. The architect of gargantuan fantasies could also produce tiny masterpieces by playing games with other people’s genius.

In his Giga, bolero e variazione he takes Mozart’s wild 38-bar Gigue in G major K.574 and combines it with the fandango from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro before switching the dance from triple to duple time. In his recording for Hyperion, Marc-André Hamelin powers through this tour de force in under four minutes – one of the miracles of the recorded repertoire, though you can understand why the BBC chose something more substantial to mark the centenary.

There’s no getting around the fact that Busoni’s Piano Concerto is his major non-operatic creation. ‘Monstrously overwritten’ is too harsh; I prefer Joseph Horowitz’s verdict that, although ‘posturing is not wholly avoided’, its juxtaposition of German gravitas and demonic Italian jocosity maps a journey of the spirit.

There are very few opportunities to hear it live, so this is your chance to decide for yourself. There are still tickets available. I’ve just grabbed one.

Tickets for Prom 23: Grosvenor plays Busoni’s Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 August are on sale now.