Rhinegold Photo credit: Helen Murray
Karl Lutchmayer

Josephine Miles

Preview: Karl Lutchmayer performs Busoni’s Piano Concerto

1:01, 12th November 2019

British-Goan pianist Karl Lutchmayer will perform Busoni’s Piano Concerto Op 39 on 30 November at St John’s Smith Square, a work that has been performed only once in London in the last 30 years. The concert is the culmination of Lutchmayer’s three-day concert series ‘Busoni – The Romantic Modernist’ which will showcase Busoni’s rarely performed piano and chamber music.

Lutchmayer told IP about performing this concerto of symphonic proportions, and explained why he thinks Busoni deserves more recognition as a composer   


What inspired you to take on the challenge of Busoni’s mighty piano concerto?

I discovered this piece when I was 16 years old – I bought John Ogdon’s amazing recording from a second-hand record shop in Croydon. I’ll never forget sitting down with my school friend, putting it on the turntable for the first time, and being taken on an epic musical journey. Much later I wrote my master’s thesis on performance practice in Busoni’s piano music, and often gave Busoni solo recitals, but I could never persuade an orchestra and conductor to programme the concerto. I had given a few performances with a second piano and choir, then about a year ago I witnessed the amazing young conductor Joy Lisney perform a Mahler symphony with her orchestra, Seraphin, and thought she’d be perfect for this project. She was up for it, so here we are!

How have you been physically and mentally preparing yourself for this pianistic marathon?

Yes it’s a long concerto, but it amounts to the same playing time as a solo recital, and you get fewer orchestral tuttis in a solo recital! I think the concerto has not been best served by its reputation as a marathon – we’re not talking Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum here. It’s extraordinarily well-written for piano, so you are never fighting the orchestra, and for me it’s far less strenuous than a Brahms concerto, for instance. The key is to stay relaxed during practice and feel the arc of the work.

How will you maintain your stamina, energy and concentration throughout the 70-minute performance?

Peter Donohoe advised eating a large bowl of pasta for lunch, but my top tip is remembering to go to the loo just before going on stage! For the rest, it’s about keeping loose and free as much in practice as in performance, and always thinking about the next note.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)

What do you know of Busoni’s motivations behind composing this huge work?

Written towards the end of his 30s, for Busoni this was the summation of his ‘first style’ period – the bringing together of his ideas on what transpired to be the twilight of the Romantic era. In the concerto we find traces of music he sketched when he was just 16 years old, as well as folk tunes and ideas for opera and incidental music. It is basically a symphony which embraces Mahler’s famous edict that ‘A symphony must be like the world – it should contain everything’, and happens to have an obbligato piano part running through it. Ronald Stevenson, the great Busoni scholar (and until his death my inspiring mentor and friend), asserted that in his later years Busoni thought of it as his Italian Symphony.

What is the relationship between Busoni’s piano and orchestral writing in this concerto? Who leads?

The piano is very much part of the orchestra, often as the first among equals. There are some solo moments, but much of the time the piano accompanies, decorates or comments on the orchestra’s music. There is never really that sense of soloist versus orchestra which is often found in concerto form at that time.

What is the relationship between the piano part and the male chorus in the fifth movement?

This is curious because at the piano’s first entry in the first movement, the soloist plays the theme in the bass part (decorated with chords up and down the keyboard, so it’s not immediately obvious) that returns only in the last movement to be sung by the choir. So in that sense, the piano acts as a herald. But in the visionary world of the last movement, the piano stays in the background, simply adding to the accompaniment until the very last bars.

Does Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin text sung in this last movement influence your interpretation?

For Busoni, this text seems not to have been about God or Allah, in whose name it gives praise, but rather the wonders and beauty of the world. In the original play this hymn is sung when Aladdin enters the cave and sees the rock, suffused with precious stones glowing in the darkness. For me this is a counterbalance to the worldy fourth movement which conjures up the bustle of Naples. I try to bring out its otherworldly qualities.

Karl Lutchmayer (Photo credit: Helen Murray)

Are you using Busoni’s written cadenzas in the fourth movement?

Absolutely, but I’m using the later cadenza which was published in the two-piano reduction rather than the earlier cadenza in the orchestral score. It’s a little bigger than the first, but less frenetic, so it sits better between the fourth movement (which it closes) and the fifth. It’s worth remembering that all the movements follow each other without a break.

What is the most challenging aspect to performing the concerto?

The biggest challenge is getting used to moving in and out of the limelight, playing passages that entwine round the orchestra with varying levels of prominence. I am both soloist and orchestral pianist at different times, and switching between those roles while sitting in the soloist’s spot can be a strange experience.

What is the most enjoyable aspect to performing the concerto?

Performing this piece connects me with some of the most amazing musicians I have known. It brings back fabulous memories – particularly of sitting in Ronald Stevenson’s ‘den of musiquity’ as he called his music room, poring over scores and texts pertaining to the work, and hearing his stories of playing to the composer’s widow and circle. Of John Ogdon’s kindness in spending time with me as a teenager and signing my copy for me. Of my teacher at the Royal College of Music, John Barstow, who was no less passionate about the work and put up with my early attempts to play bits of it. And of Suvi Raj Grubb, the record producer who had worked on Ogdon’s recording and who became a good friend in India.

In addition, the concerto is just so wonderfully off-the-wall and over the top. There is a zest and ebullience which is overwhelming and occasionally preposterous. It’s the prog rock of piano concertos! (My prog rock band, The Connoisseur, did in fact experiment with creating a prog version of the concerto!)

Busoni: a composer difficult to pigeonhole

What inspired you to curate a mini festival on Busoni?

Madness?! I’m playing a lot of Busoni in three days… But in truth I wanted to seat the concerto within Busoni’s creative arc. Soon after composing it, he wrote his influential pamphlet ‘Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music’, became friends with Schoenberg, and left Romanticism behind. Many people know Busoni for his Bach transcriptions which strongly bear the mark of his mentor, Brahms, and the concerto also has Lisztian and Mahlerian traits. But if we only know this side of his work, we miss the extraordinary journey he then undertook to write his next compositions, such as the Elegies and Sonatina Seconda which speak in a very different language while still employing 19th-century pianistic devices. On the other hand, I wanted to show his starting point with the early Concerto for Piano and String Quartet, composed when he was 12 and very advanced in its writing, alongside his Second Violin Sonata which I consider to be his final truly 19th-century masterpiece.

Why, in your view, isn’t Busoni a widely performed composer today?

He sits in an awkward place in musical and pianistic history. His earlier works, forward-looking as they are, are perhaps not quite Romantic enough, and his mature ones are too Romantic when compared to other music of the period. As such he’s difficult to pigeonhole. His music is very subtle and needs several hearings to really get a sense of what’s going on. Plus he was comfortable writing protean, galvanic, even quite ugly music in order to express his musical vision – and we’ve always found ugly music difficult to accept in the concert hall.


Karl Lutchmayer performs Busoni’s Piano Concerto with the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra conducted by Joy Lisney on 30 November 2019 at St John’s Smith Square, London. Tickets are available here: sjss.org.uk/events/busoni-piano-concerto


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