Ohlsson brings Busoni behemoth back to Cleveland

Cleveland Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 7, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 100 in G major, Hob. I:100, Military
Busoni: Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were anything but routine and truly one for the books, featuring a rarely-heard epic: Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto, an Olympian creation spanning the continuum of over 70 minutes, cast in five movements with the last including a male chorus. At the podium was former assistant conductor Alan Gilbert in his only stateside appearances this season. Before plunging into the unforgiving waters of the Busoni, the orchestra offered a delectable amuse-bouche in Haydn’s “Military” symphony.

A graceful classicism imbued the quintessentially Haydnesque slow introduction, with deftly ornamented strings. The movement proper was given with joie de vivre, though Gilbert didn’t shy away from giving matters ample gravitas where necessary: while seemingly a trifle in the wake of the Busoni, it proved to be far more than a mere featherweight. The Allegretto began unassumingly with some particularly lovely playing in the winds, while a boisterous splash of color against the pearly white classicism was achieved through the sudden introduction of cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, earning this symphony its moniker. Thought of as “Turkish” sounds with the Austro-Turkish War being in recent memory, these instruments were used to similar effect by Mozart and Beethoven; the present work’s martial feeling was further enhanced by a series of bugle calls. By comparison, the ensuing minuet was decidedly Old World, with a trio of simple charm. The finale was of frenetic energy and included a brief return of the colorful percussion.

There’s some historical context necessary in appreciating the magnitude of the Busoni performance. An absolute marathon for the soloist, it makes superhuman technical demands virtually without respite, and thus only a handful of pianists have the stamina to approach such a work. The Cleveland Orchestra first traversed the concerto in 1966 with Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini and George Szell conducting (an archive recording can be heard here), and the Cleveland performances were followed by a tour date in New York. In the audience of the Carnegie Hall performance was an eighteen-year-old Garrick Ohlsson who later that year would win the Busoni International Piano Competition. Fast-forward to 1989, and Ohlsson was the soloist in TCO’s next encounter with the work, this time under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi. A New York performance again took place (along with Boston), as well as a recording session, the fruits of which continue to serve as a benchmark. This weekend’s two performances thus commemorated a remarkable anniversary, with Ohlsson, now 70, returning to the keyboard almost 30 years to the day of the recording (February 4, 1989).

Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Garrick Ohlsson and Alan Gilbert, center.

The opening Prologo for orchestra alone initiated matters with lush, hyper-Romantic strings; though written in 1904 the work’s musical language was firmly rooted in the previous century, predating Busoni’s more astringent modernism. Winds and brass were introduced in stately fashion, with the piano’s entrance at the Introito being one of commanding chords thunderously traversing the keyboard. Rarely will one hear a Steinway played with such leonine power, with Ohlsson’s effusions sailing above the orchestra and through the depths of the hall – and impressively, he had the whole score committed to memory. While generally a movement of solemnity, there were occasional hints of the composer’s Italian heritage, of central importance in the work’s even-numbered movements. The following Pezzo giocoso was just that, beginning with rapid, fantastical material leading to a dizzying folk theme. It’s a movement that for me brings to mind the analogous one from Brahms’ second piano concerto, it too being a work of enormous weight, and like Brahms, Busoni’s piano writing is often subsumed into the dense texture of the orchestra when not front and center. Afendi Yusuf offered a languorous clarinet passage, and the folk theme appeared again in the piano atop rumbling tremolos in the bass. Boisterous as the movement was, it faded away in resolution.

The central Pezzo serioso is the heart of the work, its twenty minutes further divided into three sections with an introduction preceding. The low strings emanated a somber, looming darkness, as well as a contrapuntal severity that evidenced the specter of Bach, Busoni’s greatest idol. The piano floated above the strings, almost as a nocturne, and a solemn brass chorale also found an answer from the keyboard. Powerful rolling chords marked the Prima pars, while the extensive Altera pars erupted into a storm worthy of Mahler. Indeed, had Mahler written a piano concerto, this all-encompassing vision of Busoni leaves a clue to what perhaps could have been. The bright Italian sun broke through in the penultimate movement, All’Italiana, with bubbling winds further colored by tambourine. The wild tarantella was given with a joyous abandon, almost boiling over to a breaking point before the massive cadenza, with Ohlsson not flagging in intensity even an hour in.

The concluding Cantico brought forth the men’s chorus who rose to their feet at the cadenza’s conclusion (although it should be noted that Busoni desired for the chorus to not be visible to the audience). The notion of including a chorus within a piano concerto certainly contravenes convention, save for a few odd precedents – most notably, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, as well as all but forgotten examples from Daniel Steibelt and Henri Herz. In scoring for male voices, one also suspects Busoni looked towards the finale of Liszt’s Faust Symphony as a guiding light. A mystical atmosphere pervaded the movement’s beginnings to set the stage for the monastic entry of the chorus, at which point Ohlsson was afforded a well-earned relief, albeit brief. The six-part choral writing yielded some striking harmonies, in the service of a text by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger rendered in German. Excerpted from the poet’s “Aladdin”, the text in question is a hymn to Allah, yet much like Mahler’s texts of religious inspiration, it transcends one particular ethos. Upon conclusion of the text, the piano and full orchestra were rallied once again for the coda, magnificent and triumphant. A remarkable achievement, not to be soon forgotten.