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Briefly Noted: Barto's Bach Busonified

available at Amazon
Bach, Goldberg Variations, arr. Busoni-Barto, T. Barto

(released on May 12, 2015)
Capriccio C5243 | 60'57"
Tzimon Barto is a regular in Washington these days, because Christoph Eschenbach favors him at the National Symphony Orchestra. The American pianist can be infuriating or galvanizing: we have heard him both ways on disc and live. In this new recording, featuring his own odd adaptation of Ferruccio Busoni's already strange arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations, he shows both sides of that unpredictable musical personality. Busoni's arrangement of Bach's famous set has the usual excesses one expects of him, the filled-out chords and contrapuntal voices, the bass octaves. Its best moments are the two-keyboard variations, where Busoni essentially recasts pieces designed for a multi-manual harpsichord for the grand piano, where there is only one keyboard but a much larger compass to play with (the antic leaps of register are really fun).

To be clear, Barto is not playing directly from the Busoni edition, and in a number of places he does his own thing. Exaggeration is the name of the game. Busoni advised skipping some of the variations in concert; not only does Barto ignore that, for he plays all of the variations, he plays many of them absurdly slow, none more so than the Adagio of Variation 25. The tempo choices, in fact, are so outrageous that, even without taking any of the repeats, he still requires fifty-five minutes to play the whole set. In many ways, Barto acts against Busoni's recommendations: Busoni marked Variation 7 as Allegro scherzando, and Barto takes it rather slowly and not at all playfully; the Fughettas of Variations 10 and 22, where Busoni advised Alla breve, Barto takes in a pokey four, often with grotesque distortions of tempo; in Variation 15, Barto emphasizes the top voice, where Busoni indicated that the middle voice of the canon in contrary motion should be distinguished. Busoni's extravagant extension of Variation 28 into the piano's upper octaves receives a music-box timbre smudged with heavy pedaling, but rather than Busoni's completely redone version of the Tema at the end of the set, Barto plays the original version of the Tema, even more indulgently than the first time around. Obviously, not for everyone.

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