Kirill Gerstein and Zoltán Fejérvári give a two-piano recital that will linger long in the memory

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Busoni: Kirill Gerstein, Zoltán Fejérvári (pianos). Wigmore Hall, London, 2.7.2023. (MB)

Kirill Gerstein and Zoltán Fejérvári

Mozart – Sonata in D major for two pianos, KV 448/375a
Busoni – Improvisation on JS Bach’s Chorale ‘Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele’, BV 271; Duettino concertante after the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.19 in F major, KV 459, BV B 88; Fantasia contrappuntistica for two pianos, BV 256b
Mozart-Busoni – Fantasia in F minor for mechanical organ, KV 608

Mozart ran like a golden thread through Busoni’s life and music — though, as for many composers, Schoenberg included, he only became more important as time went on. It was only fitting, then, that in the last of Kirill Gerstein’s Wigmore Hall series, we should be treated to a combination of the two, alongside the inevitable Bach. Joined by the equally outstanding Zoltán Fejérvári, Gerstein offered us a two-piano recital that will linger long in the memories of those who heard it. Here was a splendid recreation – reconstruction suggests something far too dry – of two concerts Busoni and Egon Petri gave in London (in this very hall) and in Berlin’s Beethoven-Saal in 1922 and 1921 respectively. Where London had heard the F minor Fantasia and Berlin the Sonata for Two Pianos, London 101 years later was treated to both.

According to Erinn Knyt’s informative note, Edward Dent and Jürgen Kindermann refer to an arrangement of the Sonata, but all that survives is a ‘marked up performance score with numerous annotations and suggested textual alterations,’ and a ‘cadenza handwritten in the back of the score’. I presume this is what we heard here; there were certainly numerous, delightful departures from Mozart’s letter in something akin to Busoni’s – and, I think, our twenty-first century pianists’ – spirit. The first movement began, and proceeded, in significantly more inviting fashion than a performance in the same hall I had heard a few months previously. Warm, stylish, in the best sense bustling, it was unobtrusively well shaped and finely ornamented. One startling turn taken in the recapitulation I had never heard – nor played – before, but there were other departures too, for instance unfailingly stylish flourishes and filling in of textures (arguably) to suit better our modern instruments or at least (some of) our tastes. The Andante received a similarly glorious performance, lyrical and harmonically founded, musical threads shared and seamlessly passed across the stage. Ornamentation was once again imaginative and welcome: Busoni, Mozart, and, I imagine, Richard Strauss would surely have admired this greatly. Observation of repeats again offered a rare and welcome luxury. An affectionate and infectious finale proved full of buffo incident. I presume the interpolated cadenza, essentially an extended lead-in, was Busoni’s; likewise the decision to take certain passages sotto voce. Whoever was responsible, the results were a sheer delight.

The Improvisation on JS Bach’s Chorale ‘Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele’, obviously rooted in Bach, is also a drastic reworking of the finale of the Second Violin Sonata. We were immediately plunged into a Faustian world of new seeking: new harmonies, new touch, new half-lights, new rhetoric. Bach, after all, is ever new — and ever old. Busoni rarely, if ever, takes us where we might expect: his surprises here were most welcome. The music sounded ripe for orchestration without in need of it. Fantastical yet dignified, its tonality near-suspended and reinstated, soft-spoken yet diabolically eruptive: this was another fine performance indeed.

Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor for mechanical organ, transcribed and, sparingly, elaborated by Busoni, opened the second half. A grand, unabashedly pianistic introduction, with counterpoint clear and directed, made the case for a more ‘objective’, indeed ‘mechanical’ performance, which yet somehow did not preclude metaphysics. Busoni’s octaves, when they came, sent shivers down the spine. And the extraordinary double cadenza taking us from F major back to F minor truly took on the character of a fugal recapitulation-cum-coda. The Duettino concertante after the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.19 in F major was conceived, it seems, also as a sort of finale to the Fantasia, though here it was performed as a separate piece. More overtly pianistic as work and performance, it was treated to a delightfully responsive performance, which seemed to speak of a love for the material to match Busoni’s own. The cadenza proved a bizarre, rather wonderful surprise, as did Busoni’s new ending.

Finally, we heard the two-piano version of the Fantasia contrappuntistica, returning us to Bach and ‘original’ composition in equal measure. Its opening outlined Busoni’s scale of ambition as well as elements of material and expression, dreamlike in concision, transition, and its paradoxical remembering before the event. Touch and voicing from both pianists summoned the spirit of Busoni, both as secure, imaginative guide to Bach, and Faustian voyager beyond. At times, the two keyboards seemed miraculously to merge into one; at others, almost equally so, they separated once more, as if antiphonal keyboard choirs. There was something Mephistophelian to what we heard — and rightly so. Not that a constructive, even constructivist, element was absent, but rather it emerged through the effort and experience of the variations. Gerstein and Fejérvári showed that it was perfectly possible, indeed mandatory, to exploit their pianos as pianos, not generic keyboards, to beguile, to thrill, even to seduce, without loss to direction. Far from it, those qualities were key to that achievement in neo-Lisztian necromancy. We were led in directions we had never imagined, yet which seemed after the event the only option, all the way to yet another surprising conclusion.

After that, a fitting encore: Kurtág’s transcription for four hands at one piano of the opening Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus, BWV 106, ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’. Touching in its intimate dignity, it was the perfect choice in as perfect a performance as we are likely to hear.

Mark Berry

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