Quick before the month ends, I’m sneaking in one more CD release announcement. This one is for Busoni fans and who better to regale this great Italian composer than the fantastic Belgian pianist, Steven Vanhauwaert and the remarkable French label that champions sacred poetic music, Editions Hortus. You could say this CD emanates from Italy through Belgium via France to you!
Haven’t heard of Busoni? I hadn’t until my piano lessons with the consummate pianist Mario Feninger.
Mario had recorded Busoni’s emotive Fantasia Op. 33b No. 4. Its exalting ending from a dark and stormy beginning evoked an image of triumph over struggle, a shimmering light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I hadn’t experienced this vision with other composers. Mario shared a memorable story with me of how audiences who heard Busoni play were so electrified they were found wandering the streets afterwards, unable to sleep! I had been meaning to learn more about Busoni since, and am grateful to finally be able to fulfill this mission and share it with my students and readers.
To start, here’s a brief backstory on Busoni courtesy of my assistant, Miss Jessica Lee Sanders.
Hey, there. Jessica here. I love it when my boss asks me to research an artist or musician I haven’t heard of before. With my mom’s family hailing from Italy, I enjoyed learning that composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and teacher, Ferruccio Busoni was born in Empoli, Italy in 1866. (That’s quite a list of accomplishments in one lifetime.) His success and reputation allowed him to work with many prominent musicians, artists and literary figures of his time. He was also a sought-after keyboard and composition teacher. Busoni lived through WW1 and died in July 27, 1924 in Berlin, Germany.
More about this remarkable composer will be revealed in the blog interview ahead. Prepare to have your mind blown.
Thank you for the excellent intro, Jessica! And now on to my interview with the mastermind behind this CD, pianist Steven Vanhauwaert.
LRW: I’m excited for the release of your second solo album with Editions Hortus. The cover art is eclectic. May I ask who the artist is? What is the story behind the design and palette? Did the record label hire the artist or did you get to choose?
SV: The cover was made by a friend of mine, Clara Vamvulescu. I had asked her to design the cover with elements of work by the painter Giorgio de Chirico, whom Busoni admired, as well as images of Busoni himself. I think it turned out very well!
LRW: It did! Very eclectic and memorable artwork symbolizing the music it represents. Kudos to Miss Clara Vamvulescu for taking on this challenging assignment. Giorgio de Chirico is new to me. I look forward to researching more about this artist to share with my students. [Note to readers: I reached out to the artist for comment but no reply to date. I will update the blog accordingly should I hear back.]
So, a solo piano CD is quite an undertaking. How and why did you choose Ferruccio Busoni and the compilation below? What is the meaning behind the title, l’Énigme (The Riddle or Mystery)?
1. Élégies, BV 249 (1908) I. Nach der Wendung
2-5. Indianisches Tagebuch I, BV 267 (1915)
6. Fantasia nach J.S. Bach, BV 253 (1909)
7. Fantasia Contrappuntistica, BV 256 (1910)
Preludio corale – Fuga I – Fuga II – Fuga III (on B-A-C-H) –
Intermezzo – Variazione I – Variazione II – Variazione III –
Cadenza – Fuga IV – Corale – Stretta
8. Élégies, BV 249 (1908) VII. Berceuse
SV: The enigmatic Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni slipped somewhat between the cracks of music history. Although well-known for his brilliant piano transcriptions of masterpieces by other composers, his original works have eluded popularity in performance. The publication of his controversial essay, “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” (1907), marks a turning point in his musical style. The Enigma CD highlights some of these later works, including the heroic Fantasia Contrappuntistica, two of the Elegies, the Fantasia Nach J.S. Bach, and the Indian Diary.
LRW: Indeed. According to a review, Busoni’s essay is considered “a daringly progressive statement about the necessary freedom and future of music, its broad and prescient outlook all the more fascinating for its having arrived so early.” Busoni’s musical philosophy is revealed in this collection of original works.
There are many labels to choose from. Why did you return to Editions Hortus for this project? Did you approach them or vice versa? Where was it recorded? Will it be part of a series or a standalone project?
SV: I have worked with Editions Hortus on four albums already and have enjoyed the collaboration with them very much. They have a great catalogue, and I feel they very much value the ‘old school’ feel of an album as a whole, not just a collection of random tracks.
I recorded this disc in a beautiful church in Belgium on a great Steinway D.
I am not currently planning on doing another Busoni disc, but you never know what the future will bring. I have so many projects on my bucket list; as the saying goes: “
LRW: A collaboration of kindred musical spirits! The acoustics and aesthetics of the Belgian church must have been very moving. A stellar Steinway D honors both composer and pianist!
I know that saying all too well. Best wishes on your musical projects. We look forward to hearing them as they come to fruition.
Just a quick interjection. I have a surprise treat for my students and readers – an interview with the CEO of Editions Hortus, Monsieur Didier Maes!!
LW: Thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to contribute to our blog. I understand that Hortus specializes in sacred music and poetry. How does composer Ferruccio Busoni fit in this context? Is this the first recording of a work by Busoni for Editions Hortus?
DM: Should we say that the sacred music would not be so largely known and played without Johann Sebastian Bach? Probably yes … to a certain extent. And from then, we will have to note that Bach would probably not be so well known and familiar to us without Busoni, at least beyond the churches and the faithful people. Thanks to Busoni’s transcriptions, Bach’s keyboard masterpieces can be played on a piano since a century. He realized his Bach-Busoni editions over a nearly 30-year span, in two collections and more than 30 volumes. A lifetime work.
During WW1 Busoni refused to make concerts in belligerent countries, staying in Switzerland, a neutral country. Busoni was deeply affected when his friend the painter Umberto Boccioni was killed (in a riding accident) whilst on military training, and published an article strongly critical of war.
When Busoni took a stand against German aggression, the composer Hans Pfitzner took the occasion to call his views “a manifestation of the international Jewish movement” against Germany. For all these reasons, his Fantasia Contrappuntistica has been recorded in the volume II of our collection The Musician and the Great War :Au Carrefour de la modernité, in a two piano version, by Jean-Sebastien Dureau and Vincent Planes who performed on a Pleyel Double Grand piano (a 1897 grand piano with a double keyboard).
LRW: Our culture is indebted to Busoni’s lifetime dedication to transcribing Bach’s keyboard works.
So sorry to learn of the death of his painter friend. In his honor, I will research the artist Boccioni to share with my art students. As the daughter of a Jewish holocaust survivor, I am heartened to learn of Busoni’s stand against war and belligerent countries especially Germany, at a time when it was likely unpopular if not downright dangerous to do so.
Performing Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica on a double keyboard grand piano sounds fitting for such a monumental piece. (I’ve got to see a Pleyel Double Grand piano up close at some point.) I’m looking forward to hearing Steven Vanhauwaert’s solo piano rendition.
Busoni composed many pieces. Why l’Enigme? Were other works considered? If so, what were they?
DM: If Busoni was a great composer, he was also a child prodigy, a remarkable pianist. In 1877, Busoni heard the playing of Franz Liszt and was introduced to the composer, who admired his skill.
Busoni made many tours in the USA. His visits to America led to interest in North American indigenous tribal melodies in which were reflected in his Indianisches Tagebuch. So it was very interesting to combine his Fantasia nach J.S. Bach in echo to this piece, a dialogue of one of the main sources of the European culture with the one of the Native Americans.
The grandiose Fantasia Contrappuntistica, a “Himalayan climbing”, is a challenge that accords with pleasure a talented young pianist. This piece is also intended as an emphatic homage to Bach based upon the “B‑A‑C‑H” motif, a four-note cell that Bach used to sign his works. After a short introduction this motif is heard, given out in a bass tremolo, prior to turning up in varied forms punctuating this long fantasy. The virtuosity is diabolical here, completely devoted to the service of the quest for colors in this score: exceeding mere prowess in contrapuntal writing.
As Steven commented in his booklet note: “When Busoni lost his father, he decided to compose a memorial, the Fantasy nach (after) J.S. Bach, which honors the debt he owed his father for introducing him to Bach’s music. This work, which invites us to rediscover three of Bach’s chorales, ends in an enigma, not unlike the mysterious character of the composer himself.”
So after Steven’s disc with Ambroise Aubrun, Paris <>LA this travel From Bach to America (Back to the USA) could be the password to help us solve this Enigma. No need to consider many other Busoni’s works to do so.
LRW: I didn’t realize Busoni was a child prodigy. How exhilarating to have met Franz Liszt in person and receive his admiration!
I’m intrigued by Busoni’s admiration for Native American music. What a great combination of European and Native American music. Interesting to note, during my art classes, I play Native American flute works along with meditative pieces by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert and more. The eclectic playlist creates a stimulating ambience while students draw and paint. Yes, placing Fantasia Nach Bach after American Indian melodies is an interesting choice.
In the Fantasia Contrappuntistica I will listen for the “B-A-C-H” motif. Steven’s monster technique will no doubt make it resonate.
I’m touched to learn the Fantasy Nach Bach was dedicated to his father. I see now how its ending being an enigma and the mysterious character of Busoni are the inspiration behind the title of the CD. However, it could be subtitled, “From Bach to America” as you cleverly mention. Perfect timing after the Paris<>Los Angeles CD!
By the way, how did Editions Hortus decide on pianist Steven Vanhauwaert for this project? Did he present to you or vice versa?
DM: Busoni, L’Enigme was proposed by Steven.
LRW: Ah, I am not surprised. During my blog interview with Steven in 2018, he revealed, “I am rather curious by nature; I am always eager to learn new works and to discover unknown/underrated composers. Often their life stories provide interesting insights into the thinking behind the composition, as well as the circumstances various composers had to deal with in their lives.”
May I ask, will there be more recordings of Busoni’s compositions by Editions Hortus or is this a standalone project?
DM: As a small label, Hortus is rarely recording twice a composer. We are trying to diversify as much as possible our productions, with unknown composers or pieces. So we cannot exclude that we will record some other Busoni compositions even if this is not yet decided.
LRW: Good to know. It was a profound pleasure incorporating your riveting stories about Ferruccio Busoni and the making of this remarkable CD in this humble blog. Thank you also for your tireless work championing important lesser known composers and their exquisite transformative music which our culture needs now more than ever.
And now back to our interview with Steven.
LRW: With concert halls closed, would you happen to be planning a live stream event of this recording? Maybe a YouTube video or series? If so, where may my students, readers and I find them?
SV: I will release a series of short promo videos about every piece on the album and those will be featured on my Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/steven.vanhauwaert/) as well as on my website (www.StevenPiano.com).
LRW: Excellent! Looking forward to them. Once concert halls open again, do you plan to perform this work live? If so, how may my students, readers and I be kept informed? Is there a mailing list we may subscribe to?
SV: I was planning to tour with a lot of Busoni on the program, and I hope we can return to some form of live concerts as soon as it is safe to do so. I don’t currently have a mailing list, but by following me on instagram or checking my website you can stay tuned on upcoming projects and performances.
LRW: I hope so, too. Duly noted. Oh, Before I forget, where may we purchase it? And, is there a Spotify link by any chance?
SV: Here is the link for the CD on the Editions Hortus page. It goes live on September 25, 2020.
Your readers can have a listen on Spotify.
LRW: Thank you so much! It was a pleasure and a privilege interviewing you about your fantastic CD release. May it be well received worldwide!
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