Busoni as Pianist, by Grigory Kogan, translated and annotated by Svetlana Belsky. Boydell & Brewer, Inc. 2010 www.boydellandbrewer.com; 197 pp., $75.00.
This book is a gem. It brings to life, through countless quotes, anecdotes and actual musical examples, the work of the legendary pianist, Ferruccio Busoni. We owe an enormous debt to Svetlana Belsky for translating the original 1964 Russian monograph by Soviet pianist, Grigory Kogan.
Organized chronologically, the book, despite its brevity, details Busoni’s approach to technique, tone color, interpretation, transcription and composition. Each short chapter details a particular facet of Busoni’s work, and the helpful table of contents allows the reader to search for specific information, while the lengthy bibliography affords ample opportunity for further research.
What an intellectual and musical giant this man was, and how little most of us know of his protean accomplishments. In his relatively brief lifetime (1866-1924), Busoni performed, edited, transcribed, taught, authored and composed, all in astonishing abundance. His transcriptions, particularly of Bach, have assured him a place with posterity, but how may of us know his ideas on piano technique? Kogan and Belsky’s book offers ideas on groupings, technical variants and redistributions that are still useful today.
Included in the book are detailed discussions of Busoni’s piano rolls and early recordings, comparing his interpretations to those of Josef Hofmann ad other contemporaries. One wishes for an accompanying CD (an idea for future editions), but piano buffs can explore on their own.
The body of the book is a quick read, but don’t overlook the Preface and copious footnotes. The information provided by translator Belsky about author Kogan and Soviet Russia is fascinating. Kogan, a famed professor at the Moscow Conservatory, was himself a victim of Stalinist abuses, but still remained a citizen of the Soviet Union. The last chapters of his book are filled with references to bourgeois capitalism and its responsibility for Busoni’s eventual weakened spiritual state. The reader is left to wonder what Kogan wrote for the censor’s benefit, what he truly believed and what was an accurate depiction of Busoni’s thoughts. In any case, Kogan’s criticisms of “the aims of gain,” are certainly thought-provoking, and the implicit questions about the relationship of society to art are still highly pertinent.
In presenting these issues, Belsky’s Preface provides an excellent historical summary of Soviet suppression of the arts. Kudos to her not only for bringing Kogan’s extraordinary book to our attention, but also for troubling to place its creation into the proper historical context.
–Reviewed by Catherine Kautsky, Lawrence University
American Music Teacher (October/November 2011)
The Official Journal of Music Teachers National Association