Arbiter Records 124

Paul Jacobs

The Legendary Busoni Recordings: works by Bach, Bartók, Brahms, Messiaen, and Stravinsky.

  • 2 cd set restored from Nonesuch masters
  • Released Apr 15, 2000
  • $32.99, free postage within the US
  • On Amazon

Disc 1

First CD release with 24-bit remastering of Nonesuch recordings made between 1976 – 1979. Our gratitude to Nonesuch Records for this privilege.

  1. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: I
  2. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: II
  3. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: III
  4. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: IV
  5. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: V
  6. Busoni Six pieces for polyphonic playing: VI
  7. Stravinsky Etudes: I
  8. Stravinsky Etudes: II
  9. Stravinsky Etudes: III
  10. Stravinsky Etudes: IV
  11. Bartók Etude I
  12. Bartók Etude II
  13. Bartók Etude III
  14. Messiaen: Île de feu 1: Presque vif
  15. Messiaen: Mode de valeurs et d'intensités: Modéré
  16. Messiaen: Neumes rythmiques: vif
  17. Messiaen: Île de feu 2: Vif et féroce
  18. Busoni Sonatina no. 1
  19. Busoni Sonatina seconda

Disc 2

  1. Busoni Sonatina Ad usum infantis
  2. Busoni Sonatina In Diem Nativitas Christi MCMXVII
  3. Busoni Sonatina brevis in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni
  4. Sonatina super Carmen
  5. Bach-Busoni: Komm, Gott, Schöpfer!
  6. Bach-Busoni: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
  7. Bach-Busoni: Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland
  8. Bach-Busoni: Nun freut euch, lieben Christen
  9. Bach-Busoni: Ich ruf' zu dir
  10. Bach-Busoni: Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf
  11. Bach-Busoni: Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verdebt (I)
  12. Bach-Busoni:Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verdebt (II)
  13. Bach-Busoni: In dir ist Freude
  14. Bach-Busoni: Jesus Christus, unser Heiland
  15. Brahms-Busoni: Herzlich thut mich erfreuen
  16. Brahms-Busoni: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele
  17. Brahms-Busoni: Es ist ein' Ros'entsprungen
  18. Brahms-Busoni: Herzlich thut mich verlangen
  19. Brahms-Busoni: Herzlich thut mich verlangen
  20. Brahms-Busoni: O Welt, ich muss dich lassen

The following original texts were written by Paul Jacobs for the three Nonesuch LPs. The production of this CD set was invaluably assisted by Teresa Sterne, the original producer of the recordings. We at first thought to honor the late Jacobs; tragically, a critical illness has rapidly shortened Sterne’s remaining days. These recordings are as well a monument to her remarkable work. May she rest in glory in this world and the next!

Piano Etudes by Bartók, Busoni, Messiaen, Stravinsky.

An etude is a piece that focuses on a particular idea, often one associated with an unusual problem of instrumental technique. In addition to isolating a given problem, an etude also demonstrates the possibilities of composing a piece that grows out of a limited repertory of sounds. It differs from other forms that are limited in their building material (such as a prelude) by its exploration of new regions of virtuosity.

The four works heard here encompass some of the major trends in musical composition from the first half of the 20th century. The four composers- a Hungarian, an Italo-German, a Frenchman, and a Russian- were as diverse in compositional styles as in nationality; all four, however, have one thing in common: keyboard virtuosity. At least three of them (the possible exception being Busoni, the most renowned virtuoso among them) gave the first performances of these works. Taken chronologically, these four sets of piano etudes begin in 1908 with Stravinsky’s post-Romantic harmonies and figurations. Next comes Bartók’s remarkable synthesis, a decade later, of the ideas of those two very different and powerful figures, Debussy and Schoenberg. From 1922, we have Busoni’s synthesis of post-Romanticism with neo-Classical materials. Finally, there is Messiaen’s post-World War II re-evaluation of the role of the components of musical sounds and the application of mechanical procedures as compositional techniques.

Busoni’s Six Short Pieces for the Cultivation of polyphonic Playing (from Book IX of his Klavierübung) were published in 1923, when the composer was working on his last and perhaps greatest work, the opera Doktor Faust, and something of Faust’s somber mood pervades these etudes. As their title suggests, the Six Short Pieces are studies in various techniques for isolating individual lines of a polyphonic complex. What may surprise us today, other than the many levels of contrapuntal activity, is that the harmonic rhythm seems to operate at speeds different from the dramatic gestures it is describing; for instance, when approaching cadences, instead of relaxing the speed of modulation, it sometimes accelerates precipitously back to the tonic.

Although Busoni later added a seventh piece (a study for the third, or middle, sostenuto pedal) to his Six Short Pieces (which had first appeared as Five Short Pieces), the Mozart transcription (No.6) seems to me the most dramatic and effective conclusion to the set. There are attacca indications between some of the pieces, and even where there are not, key relationships bind the six studies together in a logical order. Nevertheless, the pieces were not composed in the order in which they now stand; the fourth was written first, and the others were added piecemeal before and after.

1. Preludietto, F major. After a subject has been imitated in inversion, both forms of it are played together with accompanying voices.

2. E minor. A chromatic beginning and ending based mainly on a little cell of three notes frame a long melody surrounded by running counterpoint.

3. A major-minor. Alternating thirds and sixths in triplets, first for the right hand, then for the left, accompany a two-voiced melody in duplets.

4. D minor. The first page, played entirely by the left hand, presents a chorale-like tune sounded against running triplet figures. The right hand then takes up the two elements and the left hand answers the chorale in canon. The last page is a double canon with both elements played simultaneously by both hands.

5. Preludio, G major. Several melodies are presented in counterpoint in different types of piano figurations. Towards the end one can hear an allusion to the chorale tune of the next piece.

6. “After Mozart,” C minor. Until its concluding page, this study is virtually a note-for-note piano reduction of the scene in the finale of Die Zauberflöte where two men in armor sing the chorale Ach Gott, von Himmel sieh darein. At the end, Busoni alters the texture by adding each subsequent note of the staccato accompaniment to the preceding to form rapid two-note groups that tend to create unexpected harmonic relationships. The entire piece is played without pedal.

Stravinsky’s Four Etudes, Op. 7, written in 1908, before the composer had emigrated to Paris from his native Russia, are the last works with an opus number in Stravinsky’s catalogue, and the last pieces of what might be considered his apprentice period. One should not underestimate the beauties of these early compositions, which also include the Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, of 1908 and the Feu d’artifice, Op. 4, of 1908- both for large orchestra. Like the piano etudes, they display writing of incomparable instrumental brilliance, and they lead directly to Firebird- the first major work of Stravinsky’s long and distinguished international career.

The opening etude is a study in polyrhythms, in which a melody composed of duplets and triplets is accompanied by quintuplets. The post-Romantic vocabulary suggests middle-period Scriabin, whose influence is felt again for perhaps the last time in Stravinsky’s music in some of the best pages of Firebird.

The second etude is more tonally centered than the others. Like many 19th-century pieces, it consists principally of a series of slow harmonic changes articulated by fast-moving patterns. However, two traits characteristic of Stravinsky’s musical personality are already evident: the harmonic sequences, instead of being played with the pedal to produce a resonant blur, are played “dry,” creating a woodwind, rather than string, sound; secondly, polyrhythms are again used to amusing effect. The first principal section presents six notes in the right hand to four in the left. In the recapitulation, the left hand plays five notes against the right hand’s six.

The third etude- played with the soft pedal throughout- is the simplest in utterance, an idealized cello melody that sings through the left hand’s harmony as the right hand weaves an arpeggiated accompaniment. The piano writing and the chromatic harmony recall the 19th century The last etude is the one most frequently performed. Light, dry, and witty, it incorporates one curious feature perceptible more to the eye than to the ear. The whole piece, almost to the end, is written with the meter staggered over the bar. It is resolved only at the very end by the insertion of an extra eighth note.

Bartok’s Etudes, Op. 18, date from 1918, when he was already at work on the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, a score with which the etudes share some characteristic qualities: sumptuousness of harmony, instrumental virtuosity, and a febrile excitement that make them some of the composer’s most striking creations. The influence of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps is evident in the motoric drive of the first of the etudes, although Bartók’s frenzied vehemence is an almost expressionistic gesture that removes it from the objective control of the Russian’s scores. The etude, pianistically speaking, exploits extensions of the hands and makes severe demands on the outer and often weaker fingers, as the hands for the most part are playing stretches of ninths and tenths. The musical patterns are derived from simple chromatic scales, with alternate notes displaced by an octave. This intervallic stretching is also typical of much of Schoenberg’s music.

The second of Bartók’s etudes incorporates new ideas about total chromaticism and chords based on intervals other than thirds. (Schoenberg, too, experimented with these ideas early in his career; but whereas Schoenberg explored their effect on polyphonic writing, Bartók employs them in a homophonic context.) The glittering texture of polychord arpeggios suggests the color of harp, piano, and celesta used in Mandarin and later in Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. A chromatic melody leads twice to passages where polychords are mirror images of each other with no notes repeated and with the melody drawn from notes that are “foreign to the harmony” (as Schoenberg described this compositional technique, which he had employed before codifying his method of composing with twelve tones). The keyboard writing in this etude represents an amplification of Debussy’s researches in exploiting the new resonances of the modern piano; Olivier Messiaen has admitted to having been particularly influenced by it.

In the last etude, Bartók creates a rhythmic counterpoint by constantly regrouping the fast-moving sixteenth-notes of the left hand so as to lengthen or shorten the larger pulses such groupings suggest. The right hand plays phrases in chords that are spaced irregularly and asymmetrically and which do not correspond to the left-hand groupings.

Messiaen’s Four Rhythmic Studies were written in 1949 (Mode of Durations and Dynamics at Darmstadt, Germany the site of the International Vacation Courses for Contemporary Music; Rhythmic Neumes at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Berkshire Music Center) and in 1950 (Ile de feu 1 and 2; both works are dedicated to the people of Papua, New Guinea, from whom Messiaen took the principal themes). Although the four pieces were published separately the first performance by the composer in Tunis in 1950 grouped them under the title Quatre Études de rythme, and the composer has further stated that he wants them played only as a group and in the order presented here. Like Stravinsky’s and Bartók’s piano etudes, they represent the composer’s only works in this genre.

Messiaen’s place in the history of 20th-century music is assured not only by the large body of colorful and flamboyant music he has produced but also by his important contribution as a teacher and theoretician, especially in the domain of rhythm. When he was appointed to his post at the Paris Conservatory during the Second World War, he was virtually the only person there who had a knowledge of the advanced musical language of the Second Viennese School and a perceptive understanding of the rhythmic implications of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. Pierre Boulez and, later, Karlheinz Stockhausen were only two of the young composers to profit from his teachings.

Ile de feu 1. The Papuan theme is stated straight away accompanied by percussion noises (clusters in the lowest region of the keyboard), and restated several times accompanied by a bird sound, dissonant resonances, gongs, etc., and in a longer version in counterpoint with a melody derived from an Indian raga.

Mode de valeurs et d’intensités. This piece is entirely composed of 36 notes divided into three twelve-tone sets, each of which has a specific duration, intensity of attack, and dynamic level associated with each of its pitches. The first set begins with a 32nd-note (highest pitch) and increases the length of each subsequent pitch by a 32nd-note, so that the final note (the lowest) is a dotted quarter. The second set begins with a sixteenth-note (the highest), and increases the length of each subsequent pitch by a sixteenth, so that the final pitch (the lowest) is a dotted half. The third set proceeds similarly starting with an eighth-note (the highest) and ending with a dotted whole (the lowest). There are seven dynamic levels and twelve types of attack. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the piece is that the concepts of dynamic levels and touch are completely divorced from conventional “expressivity” The three twelve-note series are continually fragmented, causing the vertical combinations to change constantly; but since each note is invariably associated with a single dynamic level and quality of attack, the music is almost totally static. The longest and lowest note occurs only three times and acts as a reference point to orient the listener.

It is astonishing to what an extent the appearance of this composition influenced European music of the ’50s. It was admired as one of the first totally serialized pieces (although it is not, in fact, serialized in all its aspects), and it became the rallying point for the “total serialism” of the Darmstadt regulars. (In 1952 Pierre Boulez completed his first book of Structures, which, as homage, uses the first of the three twelve-tone sets of his teacher’s piece; in Book II Boulez uses all three of these tone-rows.) Inasmuch as the Mode de valeurs not only uses mechanical procedures as compositional techniques, but also leaves no room for “interpretation” on the part of the performer, it forms a logical bridge to the aesthetics of electronic music. Interestingly one of the consequences of pieces like this, which remove all the variables of performance, was the counter-movement that gave rise to the aesthetics of aleatory and controlled chance.

Neumes rythmiques. Neumes were medieval notational symbols representing pitch and, around the year 1200, rhythmic values that corresponded to Latin and Greek poetic feet. Messiaen juxtaposes melodic-rhythmic cells- the rhythmic neumes – to provide the principal material of the piece. Each cell, as it recurs, is presented with the same dynamic and dissonant resonances. The neumes are interspersed with two refrains, one of which opens the piece and is increased in duration by a sixteenth-note each time it is heard; the other, which ends the piece, is composed in a palindromic rhythm that is counted in sixteenth-notes adding up to the prime numbers from 41 (the first) to 53 (the last). Ile de feu 2. Another Papuan theme serves as refrain material that is interspersed or combined with permutations of the twelve chromatic pitches. The coda consists of the right hand, forte, playing Indian melodies in steady sixteenth-notes, accompanied in the same register by the left hand, piano, playing twelve-tone permutations.

Busoni: The Six Sonatinas for Piano

For the listener unfamiliar with the music of Ferruccio Busoni, there is no better introduction than the six Sonatinas for Piano. These remarkable works are representative of his late style, and, in addition, extremely varied from one to the other. The span of ten years during which the Sonatinas were written also encompasses the rapid transition from expressionism to neo-Classicism.

There is a tendency today to divide music of the early 20th century into one of two aesthetic viewpoints and harmonic languages: the one, usually thought of as Russian-French, with Debussy as the fountainhead and Stravinsky the most prominent figure; the other, an Austro-German school centering around Schoenberg. Yet, given the flourishing of independent artistic activity in the first decades of the century we cannot so conveniently account for all composers of that time. In addition to those who primarily continued 19th-century practices, there existed a disparate group whose music eroded the past more subtly than did the innovations of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. These composers generally came from more peripheral music centers – Sibelius from Finland, Nielsen from Denmark, Janácek from Moravia, Charles Ives from the then provincial United States, and the peripatetic Ferruccio Busoni, born in a small town in northern Italy of an Italian father and a mother of German lineage.

Although Busoni’s music is still not widely performed, as a figure he exerted considerable influence on composers and performers. Varese, Weill, and Wolpe worked with him, and countless others either studied with him intermittently or were acquainted with him as a hospitable and generous friend. During World War I, Busoni met Stravinsky in Switzerland, and the Russian paid him the compliment many years later of being the “first neo-Classicist.” He knew Sibelius in Finland, and while he was living in New York he became friends with Mahler. There is no evidence of a meeting with Charles Ives, but Busoni shares with him a certain attitude towards intellectual experimentation. He carried on a voluminous correspondence with Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, Toscanini, and other important musicians of his time; wrote numerous articles; published a short treatise in 1906 entitled Eine neue Ästhetik der Tonkunst (translated in 1911 as A Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music); and, as a conductor during several years spent in Berlin, introduced many new and unfamiliar works by contemporary composers.

Despite his achievements as composer and theoretician, Busoni’s name remains most familiar today in its hyphenated form connected to that of Bach- many of whose works Busoni reworked early in his career in brilliant and imaginative piano transcriptions- or as that of a virtuoso whose playing was a legend in his own time. As pianist, he differed from his colleagues both in the style of his playing (invariably described as monumental”) and in his choice of repertory- for he eschewed the superficial and the purely bravura, which were the hallmarks of his contemporaries, concentrating instead on the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.

Busoni’s powerful and highly original music is characterized by a number of features that should be immediately apparent. His themes are bold, simple, and short. The melodic and rhythmic elements are well-defined and remain perceptible even in elaborate contrapuntal manipulations and contrasting textures. The resonances of the modem grand piano called forth in his writing for that instrument, together with the “feel” of this music under the performer’s hands, bear witness to a pianist-composer of extraordinary resource and imagination: the writing for piano is at once idiomatic and ingenious. The one-movement Sonatina No.1, dedicated to Rudolf Ganz, is, like the other works heard here, unconventional in form; at least it does not follow the sonata-allegro prototype suggested by its title. The various short sections, all interconnected, are based on materials derived either from the opening theme or from the “second subject,” itself first heard in fugal form following the initial development of the opening material. The scale patterns, employing alternating major and minor modes, also include the whole-tone scale, occasionally resulting in a dissolution of tonality (In 1910, the year this sonatina was written, Busoni had published his own concert version of the second of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11; the Three Piano Pieces are generally considered the first instance of an entire work governed by the suspension of tonality) Busoni achieves an interesting rhythmic counterpoint in this work by juxtaposing duplets and triplets, a musical idea that reaches its climactic realization in the central section of the movement, which pits the second theme in triple meter against whole-tone figurations in duple time. With regard to harmony and the general treatment of form in short, concentrated sections, the Sonatina No. 2, dedicated to Mark Hambourg, is perhaps the most “advanced” of the six. The music’s seeming unpredictability is, on closer scrutiny entirely logical. Its mood inhabits the shadowy dream world between sleep and awakening – a fantastic landscape, suggested perhaps by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Busoni would later use the chorale-like theme that occurs after the first climax and again at the end of the piece in his opera Doktor Faust in the scene where the three students from Krakow dressed in black, present Faust with the magic book. The melody is accompanied here by chords that ultimately become mere opaque noises slowly rising up from the murky depths of the keyboard’s lowest register.

The title of the “Sonatina for the Use of the American Child, Madeline M., Composed for the Harpsichord” is somewhat misleading. In the first place, the work is actually a short suite; secondly the designation “for the Use of the… Child” does not mean that the piece is necessarily to be played by a child, or even that it is intended as a piece primarily for a child’s enjoyment, but rather that it is written in a simpler style. Significantly this piece dates from the time when Busoni was becoming increasingly interested in Mozart’s music, which represented for him the model for his own “Young Classicism” (a term he preferred to “neo-Classicism”). “Composed for the Harpsichord” is also a questionable point. It is true that during a tour of the United States for the Chickering Piano Company of Boston before World War I Busoni had met the instrument builder and early-music enthusiast Arnold Dolmetsch and ordered a harpsichord from him. However, the Sonatina ad usum infantis appears to have been written in Zurich in 1915, when Busoni was separated from his instrument. In any event, the piece not only leaves the range of the harpsichord, if momentarily but its pedal effects and dynamic inflections belong properly within the sphere of the piano. The work is in five sections, of which the first, second, and fourth share a common theme. The fifth section, a Polonaise marked “un poco cerimonioso,” might be music for an imaginary puppet show (an art form that greatly intrigued the composer); this music reappears in Busoni’s later opera Arlecchino.

The Sonatina for Christmas Day 1917, which is dedicated to the composer’s son Benvenuto, seems to adumbrate the later Hindemith, and at times even Prokofieff. An introspective mood is sustained almost without break, Christmas Day being gently suggested by the tolling of bells. Busoni is extremely economical with the melodic material; most of the piece is derived from the germ heard at the very opening, a motif that appears in many guises, as at the “quasi transfigurato” on the last page, where it is presented very slowly while the music ends in a mood of serenity tinged with sadness.

In a letter from Zurich dated August 20, 1918, Busoni wrote to his wife, “Yesterday and the day before I composed a short sonatina on three bars of Bach, with which I am very satisfied.” The next day he wrote, “I gave Jarnach the score, and it pleased him very much.” The work in question is the Short Sonatina under the Banner of the Great Johann Sebastian, dedicated to Philipp Jarnach (the composer’s pupil, who completed Doktor Faust); it is a free paraphrase of the short Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 905 (a work considered today to be of doubtful authenticity). The “three bars'” Busoni works with are not consecutive in the source piece, more than two having been taken from the Fantasy the “third” being the two-measure subject of the Fugue. An additional motif, original with Busoni but derived from the intervals of the Fantasy is also worked into this powerful and cohesive display of contrapuntal virtuosity a masterpiece that far outdistances its model.

The Sonatina No.6, dedicated to Leonhard Tauber, was first published under the title Chamber-Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen. It reflects at once Busoni’s admiration for Liszt, whose many similar opera paraphrases it recalls, and for Bizet’s opera, which Busoni, like Nietzsche, saw as the Latin counterfoil to the Wagnerian aesthetic. The sonatina presents the familiar themes in unexpected guises, but it is not an amusing piece; on the contrary it presents an encapsulated version of the tragedy with strange modulations functioning like cinematographic dissolves between the few moments from the opera that are evoked: the crowd scenes from the first and fourth acts, the “flower song,” the Habanera, and the “fate” motif. The final page, marked “Andante visionario,” combines the “fate” motif with a suggestion of poor Carmen’s Habanera in an ending of true sadness.

The Organ Chorale Preludes of Bach and Brahms as transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni

This record unites for the first time all the organ chorale preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms as arranged by the celebrated composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni.

Two traditions merge here: one, that of the chorale prelude itself, a unique hallmark of the North German, especially Lutheran church service; and the other; that of the reinterpretation of music conceived for one medium transferred to another.

The roots of the chorale prelude can be considered as old as polyphony itself. Among the earliest practices of counterpoint were those that added an original line to an ecclesiastical melody, the cantus firmus. During the Reformation, Protestant church music underwent significant changes. With greater emphasis on congregational participation and the emergence of tonal harmony and metrical regularity, the hymn replaced the old Roman chant. The melodies of these hymns might have been borrowed from the old Latin repertory, but more often were adapted from popular sources or even new tunes composed specially. Luther himself has provided us with famous examples.

For at least a century before the great Johann Sebastian, it was considered a prerequisite for the church organist to display his skill in improvising or composing a polyphonic piece in free or strict counterpoint on the hymn-tune, or choral as it was known, to be sung during the service. Bach’s ancestors left us many examples in this form.

After the Second World War; an ideal of musicological purity relegated the piano transcription to oblivion, forgetting that, as piano pieces, they were entirely convincing and successful. In the case of Bach, whose universality transcends the original medium- I have heard Art of the Fugue performed by the most disparate instruments on street corners to great effect- and the imagination and understanding of one of the great musicians of his time, Busoni, come together to delight us with a unique set of piano works. Three or four were often played. They all deserve to be better known.

The published edition of Bach’s Chorale Preludes has a preface by the transcriber: That which induced the editor to arrange a selection of Bach’s Chorale-Preludes for the pianoforte was not so much to furnish a sample of his capabilities as an arranger as the desire to interest a larger section of the public in these compositions which are so rich in art, feeling and fantasy and thereby to gradually awaken in music-loving circles a desire to become acquainted with the remaining works of this class- of which over one hundred are in existence.

This style of arrangement which we take leave to describe as “IN CHAMBER-MUSIC STYLE” as in contradistinction to “CONCERT-ARRANGEMENTS” rarely requires the highest skill of the player; with the exception only of the art of pianoforte-touch which must certainly be at the player’s command in performing these Chorale-Preludes.

This present part of the master’s works stands between “THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER” and the Transcription of the Organ-Fugues in the series of the author’s editions of Bach’s Works, which the undersigned planned in the sense of causing them to constitute a high-school of pianoforte-playing. It may be added that Busoni’s idea of that which “rarely requires the highest skill of the player” may not be that of every pianist. Some of these pieces are of transcendent difficulty.

This collection of preludes was dedicated to the Portuguese pianist Jose Viana da Motta, a friend of Busoni’s, who was considered one of the outstanding interpreters of Bach and Beethoven. The transcriptions date from 1897 the year Busoni transcribed six of the eleven chorale preludes of Johannes Brahms.

These eleven chorale preludes for organ Opus 122 were Brahms’ valedictory to the world. They were written during his lost year; 1897. The composer was dying, and he knew it. The year before, he had traveled to attend the funeral of his dear friend Clara Schumann. Grief-stricken and alone at her grave in the rain, he contracted pneumonia which further weakened the already cancer-ridden old man. From what we know, Brahms was not a Believer. Thus, his legacy must be regarded as a belief, if not in religion, then in the great polyphonic tradition of North German music of which he felt very much a part. He was one of the few great musicians of his time who had cultivated knowledge and deep love of old music.

These works were issued by the composer’s publisher; Simrock, in 1902, in three different editions: the original version for organ, a straight reduction for piano, and the six transcriptions heard here. According to Edward Weiss, Busoni’s pupil, Brahms had been instrumental in obtaining the Rubinstein prize for Busoni in 1890. They were very close at the time, and Brahms considered Busoni, together with Dvorák, the most talented composers of their generations. Apparently, Busoni completed his transcriptions in time for the composers approval.

The transcriptions themselves of both the Bach and Brahms chorale preludes are fascinating compared to the originals. Busoni had different solutions for each. Some are fairly direct, adding little, while others are elaborate, with chords, additional counterpoint, and varied repeats. In all cases, however; the intent is not so much to imitate the organ and its manifold registration possibilities, but to exploit the resonances and inherencies of pure piano music to its fullest.

It goes without saying that the performances of these Bach transcriptions, following Busoni’s directions, aim at an expressivity that is typical of the end of the nineteenth century. Concerning Brahms, the directions are very instructive, with indicated flexibilities of tempo absent from the original. This performer has opted for all of Busoni’s ossia, adding material in the Bach, and in the occasional added bars in the Brahms. The order of the printed texts is followed, as the performer believes that in many instances the pieces were meant to follow each other without pause.

The object of the chorale prelude, as evinced by the originals, and underscored by the transcriptions, is to reflect the mood of the texts. The titles of the individual pieces serve as general indications. Therefore, as one would expect, “Come, God, Creator” is heraldic, “Rejoice, beloved Christians” is joyful, and “Through Adam came our fall” is tragic, where in the first version the picture is vividly brought to life with harsh dissonances, and in the bass descending sevenths portray portray the fall. And, how extraordinarily moving is Brahms’ last breath of resignation in the prophetically titled “O World, I e’en must leave thee!”

–Paul Jacobs

No one seriously involved with the music scene in New York in the 1960s could fail to be aware of Paul Jacobs as an outstanding musical personality, famously witty and knowledgeable – a keen intellect and a patrician artist both on the piano and harpsichord.

In 1961, Leonard Bernstein had appointed Jacobs official pianist of the New York Philharmonic, a post he held with highest distinction for the remaining twenty-two years of his life. In this capacity, and frequently performing solo and concertante parts (including the obbligato piano parts in Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra and Symphony for Three Orchestras, written with Jacobs’s extraordinary abilities in mind), he played under the batons of Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, and Zubin Mehta, as well as numerous renowned guest conductors, both in New York and on the orchestra’s annual international tours. In 1974, having also gained wide recognition for his work with early keyboards, Jacobs was designated the Philharmonic’s harpsichordist as well.

Paul Jacobs was born in New York on June 22, 1930, and grew up in the Bronx. He was a pianist before age ten and revealed precocious musical tastes, reading and studying modern scores as rapidly as the local public libraries could supply them. He studied at the Third Street Music School Settlement and then at The Juilliard School (where his teacher was Ernest Hutcheson). While still in his teens, he gave two major New York recitals – at his debut, the New York Times critic described him as “a young man of individual tastes with an experimental approach to the keyboard that he already has mastered” – and he played in various new-music ensembles such as the Composer’s Forum and Robert Craft’s Chamber Art Society, and at the Tanglewood Music Center.

After his graduation from Juilliard in 1951, Paul Jacobs lived in Europe for nine years – mainly in Paris. There he became an important figure in the contemporary-music community, performing regularly with Pierre Boulez’s Domaine Musical, at the International Vacation Courses for New Music at Darmstadt, and for the International Society for Contemporary Music in Italy and Austria; and he travelled throughout France, performing and lecturing on American music. During these years, he was heard on most of the national radio networks of Europe , and he appeared as soloist with many European orchestras, including the Orchestre Nationale de Paris and the Cologne Orchestra. In Paris, he served as record producer for René Leibowitz (Jacobs supervised the first LP recording of Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder, conducted by Leibowitz; also in Paris, in 1956 Paul Jacobs became the first to present the complete cycle of solo piano music of Arnold Schoenberg in a single concert – he then recorded these works for the French label Véga. The composer Elliott Carter has recalled hearing Jacobs play at the Dartington Hall summer music school in England, where “Paul performed, among other things, one of the piano parts of Stravinsky’s two-piano Concerto with a verve that brought forth praise from the composer, who was present.”

Returning to New York in 1960, Jacobs became increasingly active in ensemble and solo work. One of his first appearances was as a participant in the Seminar in Advanced Music Studies at Princeton University in the summer of 1960. He gave several Town Hall recitals devoted entirely to 20th-century piano music and performed with many of the seminal new-music ensembles of the time, such as Gunther Schuller’s Contemporary Innovations, Arthur Weisberg’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and the Fromm Fellowship Players at Tanglewood. Aaron Copland said of him, “Paul Jacobs is more than a pianist. He brings to his piano playing a passion for the contemporary, and a breadth of musical and general culture such as is rare.”

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Jacobs gave innumerable solo recitals in the United States and abroad, also performing widely in the superb ad hoc contemporary ensembles that were presenting 20th-century and avant-garde music at festivals, seminars, and university campus series to audiences of growing numbers and sophistication. He gave a great number of premieres – works by Stockhausen, Berio, Henze, Messiaen, Sessions, and Carter, among others – and in later years initiated many important commissions of new compositions; yet he also constantly re-examined and presented the keyboard masterpieces of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Fascination with the harpsichord’s construction, history, and literature led him to study its early composers, and he often performed with Baroque ensembles; he also gave a number of harpsichord recitals that mingled early and modern repertory. Interestingly, Jacobs’s serious involvement with the instrument came about through his work in new music: in 1962 he took over the harpsichord part of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Orchestras from Ralph Kirkpatrick, whose deteriorating eyesight precluded his further performance of the work he had premiered the year before (with Charles Rosen in the piano part).

Jacobs began to collect various keyboard instruments, including an unusual harpsichord especially built by William Dowd to meet specifications of Carter’s Double Concerto and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. His participation as harpsichordist in numerous performances and recordings of the Double Concerto, as well as in the Sonata, cemented an enduring collaboration between Jacobs and the composer (he was to record virtually all of Carter’s solo music and ensemble works with keyboard).

Jacobs had taught at Tanglewood and at the Mannes and Manhattan music schools in New York, and in 1968 he began an affiliation as Associate Professor of Music at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where he continued to teach piano for nearly fifteen years. There he also organized and presented, in the College’s several performance halls, an adventurous concert series of chamber music and solo repertory. Jacobs was continually sought out as a coach to ensembles as well as to other pianists preparing complex 20th-century scores; and his master classes and lectures, rich in historical perspective and anecdotal reference, became legendary in scholarly and avant-garde circles.

In his recordings, Paul Jacobs illuminated the music of many other composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Copland, Virgil Thomson, Frederic Rzewski, William Bolcom – but none with more passion and dedication that he brought to the works of Ferruccio Busoni, both as composer and transcriber. During one of our last conversations before his untimely death from AIDS, then as yet an unnamed disease, on September 25, 1983, Paul said, “I was absolutely drawn in by his fantastic sense of harmony. And also, there’s an emotional range that I find absolutely unique. There’s no question about it – Ferruccio Busoni is the great underrated master of the twentieth century.”

–Teresa Sterne