The biggest hole in the heart of the BBC Proms

It has been a matter of pride for years at the BBC Proms that every major composer centenary and jubilee would be marked with at least one performance. It used to be the duty of the Controller’s assistant to supply a list, four years in advance, of all good composers to be celebrated in this way.

Which makes it all the most distressing that this year’s season omits one of the most significant European composers of the past two centuries. I’m not pointing fingers at any individual or demanding official excuses. Call the omisson for what it is: a major shortcoming in this year’s Proms, an embarrassment for the BBC.

I have written about the enduring importance of Ferruccio Busoni in the new issue of Standpoint:

Ferruccio Busoni, born 150 years ago last month, (was) one of the most famous faces of his time. His leonine head led to him being often mistaken for Beethoven, while his hands made light work of Liszt. Busoni was a fearless pianist, a formidable thinker and a composer overstocked with good ideas. His character was so fascinating that Gustav Mahler, never a man to waste time on soloists, craved his rare visits to Vienna. Arnold Schoenberg (no fan of anyone but Mahler) craved his personal approval. Busoni was the teacher and mentor of Kurt Weill. In the early Weimar Republic, he moulded its culture.  

The 150th anniversary should have been a golden opportunity for the Proms to stage Busoni’s piano concerto, a behemoth with chorus. It’s a terrifying piece, but the British pianist Peter Donohoe has made it his own, as has the Canadian Marc-André Hamelin. If someone had offered it to Daniil Trifonov, he would have bitten their hand off.

The Busoni concerto is made for the Proms, but not under present management.

Failing that, they could have included the Berceuse élégiaque, a short work premiered by Gustav Mahler in the last concert of his life. But present management are dull to such sensitivities, deaf to Busoni.

In a poor Proms season, this is the poorest decision.

busoni

Read the full Standpoint article here.

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    • No excuse. Then they should have programmed the Berceuse in the Proms, or one of those wondrous overtures.Or the violin concerto. When did we last hear that great piece? Szigeti was a passionate advocate.

      • Yes, the violin concerto, sadly underplayed. Or the haunting Sarabande and Cortege from Doktor Faust. Any number of pieces but, yes, at least the Berceuse and I’d add the Rondo Arlecchinesco. Toscanini sometimes programmed the latter two together in succession. Turandot Suite, Tanzwalzer, or for that matter a semi-stated Arlecchino. Any number of interesting works.

    • That was December 2014, with Garrick Ohlsson – the first performance in London since Peter Donohoe played it at the Proms in 1988.

  • They didn’t play a note of Glazunov in his anniversary year, last year – a composer of huge influence and significance (he taught Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, just for starters…). So this is hardly a first.

    That said, the business of dutifully acknowledging anniversaries is usually an excuse for lazy and unimaginative programming (we’ll need a 5-year moratorium on certain pieces by Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Walton, Mendelssohn and Prokofiev once this Shakespeare 400 year is out the way). Other significant anniversaries this year include Krenek, Falla, Granados, Gliere, Reger, Delibes and Hamilton Harty. Where do you draw the line?

  • It is puzzling why anniversaries should be a reason to program works. It does not make the music better or worse, or contribute to the composers’ popularity, or distract from available attention. A reason for programming should be the quality of the music, as considered by the management – however subjective or clumsy that may be – or / and the performers in question.

    Busoni’s piano concerto is an abominable monstrum, by the way, one of his experiments which obviously took a wrong turn. It would fill an undeserved space in both programs and audiences’ mind.

    • “A reason for programming should be the quality of the music, as considered by the management”

      Agreed, John, but the current management wouldn’t know quality (or piece or performance) if it trod on (or in) them.

      • It seems as if the proms management is, like so many other managements in the central performance culture, so busy with the logistics of running things and budget monitoring, that the contents of the exercise is suffering. But that is a structural problem, running an orchestra and / or concert hall. There are many more managerly-gifted people around than musically-talented people……. and organisations thus are locked-up within their own bureaucratic structures.

        I am always wondering why the Proms management has not discovered the British new classical movement as yet, with young(ish) composers exploring new ways of writing expressive, tonal music, which is exciting news audiences would be very interested in. The only window in this wall, in Prom context, is the occasional performance of David Matthews’ music, but his works are too seldom heard. The impression is, that orchestral managements are still locked-up behind the bars of their own bureaucracy.

    • Indeed sometimes, works which seem quite flawed, can be very interesting, and then it is often the attempt which fascinates rather than the result – one could think of Mahler – and maybe in the Busoni pf concerto there are gems to be found. I tried to listen to it once and could not stand it. But a performer may, of course, find insights hidden behind a façade that is repulsive for many a listener.

      There are works in the regular repertoire, which are regularly played, and which indulge in orgies of bad taste like Strauss’ Alpensymphonie or Sinfonia Domestica, but which seem to be fun to play. But why not reach for works which are less invalid? The efforts to get an Alpensymphonie on the rails would be better spent on, for instance, Mahler IV or Debussy’s La Mer (and this is not a matter of taste but of value).

    • Well, if Mr Donohoe spent a great deal of time learning the Busoni Piano Concerto, then he certainly has a vested interest in trying to convince us that it was worthwhile to do so. On the other hand, I have no vested interest in denying the work value and, indeed, I derive no satisfaction from doing so. My judgement of the piece simply reflects the profound disappointment I felt when I heard it. As for the ‘superior arrogance’ of my dismissing the work very decisively: what would he have me do? Shilly-shally?

    • Well, if Mr Donahoe spent a great deal of time learning the Busoni Piano Concerto, then he certainly has a vested interest in trying to convince us that it was worthwhile to do so. On the other hand, I have no vested interest in denying the work value and, indeed, I derive no satisfaction from doing so. My judgement of the work simply reflects the profound disappointment I felt when I heard it. As for the ‘superior arrogance’ of my dismissing the work very decisively: what would he have me do? Shilly-shally?

  • The Busoni violin concerto (and BTW there seems to be no documentation of Szeryng having played it) is very weak. It makes the Richard Strauss fiddle concerto look a masterpiece.

        • But it’s nice to imagine these greats in the present tense, as though they are still among us. Well, they are, in living spirit.

          • By the way, and many might not agree with me, or might, but it might have been timely for the Proms to have inserted a tribute to Keith Emerson this year to honor the icon of Progressive Rock who tragically took his own life in March. Given the eclectic programming of the Proms, and that there are probably thousands in their audiences who were raised on ELP and Keith Emerson, it could be a respectful tribute to the man who pushed the envelope with bringing pop fans to the classical music world. For me, the program would be Copland Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps a short piece by Janacek, then Emerson’s orchestral piece rarely played titled ‘Glorietta’s Pass’ followed with the Piano Concerto, second half Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures’. How’s that for a tribute to Emo?

  • There’s plenty of good Busoni out there without resorting to the same few “usual suspects” mentioned above. The Geharnischte Suite is lots of fun and pretty darn exciting. The incidental music from Turandot provides a haunting and exotic alternative to Puccini. The Symphonic Suite as well as the “Sarabande & Cortege” from Doktor Faust… All well-worth hearing!

  • The Busoni Piano Concerto is the worst piece of empty note-spinning I’ve ever heard in sixty years of concert-going. And when the choir joins in at the end it all becomes absurd. The Proms are far better off without such rubbish.

  • I’ve always felt genuine pity for those of you who don’t “get” Busoni.
    His music doesn’t need any defending.
    And bashing the piano concerto is a tired cliché born of pure ignorance (or are the haters intimidated by the finale’s praise of Allah?!)
    Performance on 9/7 near Berlin –
    https://www.dso-berlin.de/content/e43/e272/index_ger.html?eventId=57283&ACTION_OPASCALENDAR=displayEvent&lang=ger&startdate=2016/7/9&year:int=2016&month:int=7

  • To John Borstlap. I do find that I agree with much of what you say, but your comment about the Busoni Piano Concerto grates a little, as did your recent dismissal of the so-called ‘Manchester School of Composition’.

    Re The Busoni – and this is directed even more at Eric Shanes – :

    I spent about four years in the early 1980s learning this work, and I found it an immensely challenge, a flawed masterpiece, with moods ranging from profound to ridiculously OTT excitement, sometimes joined together with somewhat lame links, perhaps too long for its own good, but nevertheless very worthwhile, unique and very satisfying. The twenty-five or so performances it has been my privilege to give since then have been extremely rewarding. I am very proud to have the work on my repertoire, and look forward to the next time very much.

    However, it seems that I am wrong to love it. I bow down before your superior arrogance.

    That the Proms are ‘far better off without such rubbish’ is a remark about which the least said the better.

    I know and respect many people who do not rate this work, or indeed this composer in general. But there are ways….

    • Thank you, Peter. I became acquainted with the concerto in another generation played by Gunnar Johansen whose performance from the 1950s has made its way onto CD, and who performed it in Carnegie Hall at a Busoni revival in New York City in the late 1960s. It has since become one of my guilty pleasures. I would give anything to hear you bringing it to life in performance!

  • Well if Busoni is too demanding for the Proms audience, what about a British composer celebrating his bicentenary, Sterndale Bennett, praised by Mendelssohn and Schumann? They could have given a look in to one of his fine piano concertos.

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