Busoni: Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39, BV 247

The Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39 (BV 247), by Ferruccio Busoni, is one of the largest works ever written in this particular genre. The concerto (which lasts around 70 minutes) is in five movements, the last of which also utilizes a male chorus singing words from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger.

The inclusion of a chorus in a piano concerto was unusual, although Daniel Steibelt’s Piano Concerto No. 8 (1st perf. March 16, 1820, in Saint Petersburg) and the Piano Concerto No. 6, Op. 192 (1858) by Henri Herz both have a choral finale. The Choral Fantasy Op. 80 by Beethoven also includes a piano part.

The first performance of the concerto took place in the Beethoven-Saal, Berlin, Germany on November 10, 1904 at one of Busoni’s own concerts of modern music. Busoni was the soloist, with Karl Muck conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche). The reviews were decidedly mixed, some being filled with outright hostility or derision. The century following its premiere has seen relatively few performances, owing to the large orchestration, complex musical texture, the use of a male chorus, and the staggering demands put on the soloist.

Although the five movements are marked separately in the score, Busoni stated that the concerto should be played as a continuous whole, without breaks.

I. Prologo e Introito: Allegro, dolce e solenne
II. Pezzo giocoso
III. Pezzo serioso:
Introductio: Andante sostenuto
Prima pars: Andante, quasi adagio
Altera pars: Sommessamente
Ultima pars: a tempo
IV. All’Italiana: Tarantella: Vivace; In un tempo
V. Cantico: Largamente (with chorus)

The first movement, marked “Prologo e introito” is a little over fifteen minutes long on average, and is a broad Allegro movement which features a clangorous piano part.

The second movement, a kind of Scherzo, is mostly a light-fingered affair for the piano that makes use of “Italianate” rhythms and melodic material, even if the melodies are more evocative of Italian popular music than actual quotations from indigenous Italian folk music.

The third and longest movement is the “Pezzo serioso”, a massive meditation and exploration in four parts in the key of D major which has a central climax that is once again pianistically challenging and brilliantly scored for both the piano and the orchestra.

The fourth movement “All’ Italiana”, is perhaps the most variegated in its use of the orchestra, with a terrifically virtuosic piano part, arguably more difficult than anything that has come before it in the work. There are also two cadenzas to this movement – one, included in the printed score; the other, an insert in the two-piano score that is an amplification of the one printed in the two-piano edition.

The final movement, “Cantico” with male chorus, brings full circle many themes that have been heard earlier in the work. The words sung by the chorus are from the final scene of Oehlenschläger’s verse drama Aladdin.
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