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A Pianist's Notes on
Busoni the Visionary
Ferruccio Busoni wrote some of the most memorable, and tricky, music in the piano repertoire.  Pianist Jeni Slotchiver has an innate feel for this difficult music which she brings to life in her superb recording "Busoni the Visionary." Ferruccio Busoni: Red Indian Diary: Book one; seven Elegies; Bach-Busoni: Chaccone; Jeni Slotchiver, piano. Centaur Records, Catalog No. (CRC 2438).  Slotchiver is also a formidable Busoni scholar, as her notes for "Busoni the Visionary" reveal.
by Jeni Slotchiver

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Busoni was born on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1866 in Empoli, near Florence.  His Italian father was an accomplished clarinettist, and his mother, of German and Italian descent, was a pianist.  Ferruccio Busoni was a child prodigy who made his public debut at the age of seven and a half and at eight, performed Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto.  The highly distinguished critic Eduard Hanslick hailed the young Busoni in the Viennese press.  Until his death at the age of fifty-eight, he was widely acclaimed as the greatest concert pianist of his time, carrying forth the mantel of Franz Liszt, in more ways than one
   Busoni was a thoughtful and scholarly pianist, departing from the showy excesses of romanticism and instead, striving towards deeper content, clarity of form, and pure objectivism.  He not only developed  (more)

Busoni's magnum opus, the opera "Doktor Faust," has just received a fresh recording, conducted by Kent Nagano (Erato 3984-25501-2) and next January it comes to the Met for the first time with Thomas Hampson in the title role. (more)

a phenomenal technique but, in keeping with the character of his life as a true renaissance man, amassed a repertoire of such goliath proportions that it takes his biographer, Edward J. Dent, fifteen pages of the finest print to render a complete listing.  He was not a specialist, a concept nearly unheard of today.  Busoni was broad-minded, undiluted, completely rich.  Arthur Rubinstein described Busoni as "The most interesting pianist alive," and the American composer Virgil Thomson echoed what many great musicians would 
pass on from generation to generation: Hearing Busoni play left an indelible mark on their musical development and was the single most important and inspirational event of their musical lives.

Although much of the concert going public is acquainted with the name Busoni as a strange and unexplained hyphenation after Bach (his ingenious and fascinating transcriptions), he is less often thought of as one of the greatest composers and perhaps the most influential mentor of the early twentieth century.  George Bernard Shaw advised Busoni:  "But you should compose under an assumed name.  It is incredible that one man could do more than one thing well; and when I heard you play, I said 'It is impossible that he should compose:  There is not room enough in a single life for more than one supreme excellence'."

Although Busoni settled in Berlin, he held distinguished teaching positions in Leipzig, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Moscow, New York, Boston, and ascended Liszt's historic podium at Wiemar.  Through the wide range of his interests and his naturally curious nature, Busoni's diaries and letters are full of people he came into contact with.  He seems to have met everyone:  Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, Rilke, G. B. Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Delius, Saint-Saens, Grieg, Richter, Scriabin, Toscanini, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. 

Throughout his career as a composer, Busoni embarked on intensive analytic studies of the great composers' works.  He cleaned distorted or tampered scores, editing and publishing massive volumes of scholarly editions of works by Bach and Liszt.  He had a gift for reviving long neglected music, and at the same time he was a magnet for the revolutionary and inventive.  His lists of students confirm this commitment, among them Weill, Luening, Volpe and Varese.  He was, after all, an influential mentor to Tiomkin, Dallapicola and Schoenberg.  Beginning in 1902, his personally curated concert series in Berlin consistently explored new and infrequently heard works.  The list is lengthy; the music of Elgar, Liszt (first performances), d'Indy, Sinding, Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Nielson, Faure, Debussy, Sibelius, Bartok, Schoenberg, and others.  He was one of the most powerful and influential musicians at the forefront of the Berlin avant-garde.

As Busoni's own compositions begin to appear more frequently, his reputation as a creator of some of the most ingenious and original music of his time increases.  Indeed, he was the artist who walked out of the nineteenth century, carrying with him all the knowledge and scholarship of the era, and entered the twentieth century as a prophet, bearing a torch, which burned for the future.  His conviction to both tradition and innovation was unfailing.

Busoni's creative philosophy was against that which communicated a subjective (sensual/erotic) experience, and called for a purer, larger objectivity in which music could elevate, enrich, and certainly reach that beauty which is absolute and perfect.

As a man, Busoni was complex and fascinating, charismatic, enigmatic.  Although widely cosmopolitan, he was the ultimate outsider.  He was strongly bound to his Italian roots, and never betrayed them;  nonetheless, he was emotionally centered in Berlin, where he made his home.  He reigned over Berlin, the center of the musical world, for more than twenty years.  Notwithstanding, he was uncomfortable being aligned to any "movement" or school of thought, believing in freedom as a dictum of creative process. 

His alter egos included Merlin, Aladdin, The Wandering Jew, Faust (all heroes of his operas and recurring themes), Dante, Don Juan and Leonardo DaVinci.  Busoni was also drawn to a darker side of life.  Some of his favorite authors were Poe, Hoffman, and DeQuincy.  He was attracted to magic, alchemy (the subject of his opera Die Brautwahl) and the occult (Sonatina seconda).  Many contemporaries relate stories of his belief in ghosts.  He was tortured by nightmares.  He spoke five languages fluently, and consistently immersed himself in detailed studies of art and literature.  He had exceptional knowledge of architecture, and some of the most daring theatrical innovations of his time are to his credit.  He was a learned poet, librettist, author, and philosopher.  He considered himself a spiritualist, one who hoped to guide the twentieth century towards a full realization of pure artistic conscience. 

Busoni gave his final public performance in 1922 and withdrew from his wide circle of friends and admirers.  He devoted himself entirely to Doktor Faust, a project already years in the making.  As illness and poverty descended upon this great man, he sought to find "his perfect voice."  Refusing to consult a doctor until his final days, suffering from kidney and heart failure, Busoni's music to the Helena Scene of Doktor Faust, in which his "unattainable Ideal of Beauty" would be notated, eluded him.  Three weeks before his death he described this vision of Helena symbolically as "the essence of music," and he lamented:  "...only very few are able to perceive it and fewer still to grasp it..."  Busoni wrote to a friend that the remaining music was "within the soul of its creator."  He died on July 27, 1924 and his final words were to his wife Gerda:  "I thank you for every day we have been together."

Pianist Jeni Slotchiver began her formal musical studies at an early age.  A recipient of several scholarships, she attended Interlochen Arts Academy and The Aspen Music Festival.  She earned a bachelor's and then master's degree (with honors) in piano performance, as well as a teaching fellowship from Indiana University.

The young American pianist won several prizes and awards, which led, in 1991, to her solo debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall.  Ms. Slotchiver has toured throughout North America as lecturer and recitalist.  Highlighting her recent solo recital performances was her ‘standing-room-only’ December 26th appearance at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (broadcast on NPR).  She has presented all-Busoni programs at universities, festivals and concert series, appeared on the radio on WNYC Live, and NPR’s Performance Today (broadcast nationwide), and has been featured in CDNow and Time Out, New York, magazines.  Her 1997 Merkin Concert Hall recital, the first all-Busoni program in New York City in over thirty years, won the "heartfelt appreciation" of the Busoni Foundation.

   Ms. Slotchiver's debut CD, Busoni The Visionary, was released on Centaur Records in November of 1999 to immediate critical acclaim.  Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, recommended this CD as one of only three “Appropriate for Millennial Reflection”.  He wrote, “A fascinating program of piano works impressively played.  A vivid performance.  Filled with incandescent piano writing and music of stunning harmonic invention”.  Furthermore, David Hurwitz in Classics Today, wrote, “…her wide range of keyboard color and sense of mystery are quite simply mesmerizing.  It’s rare indeed to hear an artist…with such strong (and poetic) ideas”. And finally, Robert Cummings writes in CDNow,   “Her artistry sparkles throughout the disc, and the finest and subtlest details deftly emerge…It is, however, merely the first successful step on a journey that should be of immense recording significance”.  European reviewers have begun to talk about her “technical brilliance”, “perfectly executed expression”, “subtlety, nuance, and colorful passagework”.

   A champion of twentieth century composers, Ms. Slotchiver is dedicated to the presentation of new and rarely heard works.  She has given the world premiers of several American composers in major New York City recitals, and her North American piano repertoire ranges from Dett and Gottschalk to the avant-garde Rzewski.  Moreover, her expansive repertoire includes the collected works of many South American composers, among them Guastavino, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera.

   Ms. Slotchiver resides in New York City where she has studied with German Diez. She is on the faculty of The Greenwich House Music School.  Ms. Slotchiver is currently at work on her second CD of the piano works of Ferruccio Busoni. 

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