Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was universally appreciated as a genius with the piano. His style of playing and the ideas he developed in his compositions enable him to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Godowsky as a transcendental pianist-composer. Yet today the name "Busoni" is too often linked, literally by a hyphen, with "Bach," owing to the many transcriptions Busoni created. There are countless recordings of these Bach transcriptions, but few actual volumes exist that explore Busoni's original music. Naxos has fixed this, and with the talents of Wolf Harden, Busoni's early piano works are unveiled and championed.
I'm sure there might be some recordings of these Busoni juvenilia pieces, but I couldn't pinpoint them; they are rare. Obviously the Bach-Busoni Chaconne has been done enough, but Harden doesn't shine in his execution. Compared to the artistry and passion of Kissin, Say, or Michelangeli, Harden's playing seems bogged down, rigid, and even emotionally detached. My five star rating is not affected by this, though, because Harden recovers with his wondrous interpretations of the other pieces. The "Etude en forme de variations" was written in 1884 and reveals Busoni's early contrapuntal mastery and Romantic idiom. Richard Whitehouse, the liner-notes writer, summarizes the work sufficiently as possessing a "studious, slightly melancholic theme... succeeded by eight variations, ranging from the grotesque to the elegiac..." Busoni's Variations on "Kommt ein Vogel geflogen" are based on a song that supposedly parodies various composers of the centuries. Busoni's variations are quite chameleonlike, imitating with much success the aesthetics of Scarlatti, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Wagner.
The Variations in C major Op. 6 dates from 1873 and was written when Busoni was merely seven years old. It is admittedly light, yet somehow charming, and Whitehouse observes that the "vibrant finale recalls Beethoven's early sets of variations." Following this in 1874 is the Op. 12 "Inno variations," another ordinary work in which Whitehouse chooses to compliment the "limpid Schubertian quality of the initial theme." The principal work and true masterpiece here is Busoni's "Variations and Fugue on Chopin's Prelude in C minor Op. 22." Busoni later rewrote this work and edited its eighteen variations down to only nine. Fortunately, Naxos and Harden present the original eighteen variations and fugue (reaching 30 minutes) in all its glory. Comparable to Rachmaninov's Variations of the same Prelude, Busoni explores a vast range of pianistic devices, technical possibilities, compositional ideas, and emotional states. Unlike Rachmaninov, Busoni strives toward an intellectual quasi-meditative outcome, culminating in the mind-blowing fugue. David Dubal calls this epic work "masterly in style, a superb mixture of melodic, harmonic, and polyphonic variation technique. This rigorous work is piano writing of genius and should be better known."
Bottom line: Although the early Variations featured here lack the qualities of Busoni's deeper Elegies and Sonatinas, the "Etude en forme de variations" and massive "Variations and Fugue on Chopin" are impressive conceptions and titanic forces of pianism. The scholar and pianist Gunnar Johansen once said of Busoni: "He outshone all others. In Germany, we didn't speak of Mr. Busoni, we spoke of Der Busoni, as if he were a monument." Beyond the man himself, there is a monumental nature and magnitude in Busoni's "Variations and Fugue on Chopin" that will later recur in the majestic Fantasia Contrappuntistica and Piano Concerto.