Arts: Classical - Simply the best

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The Independent Culture
AN ODD, though all-Italian, programme on paper: three operatic standards in the first half - Rossini's William Tell Overture, the Act III Prelude from Verdi's La Traviata and the "Triumphal March" and "Ballet" from Aida - followed by Busoni's gargantuan piano concerto, as if the lollipops were there simply to draw in the punters. In the event, it was an astute piece of planning: the Rossini and Verdi underlined just how much the Busoni is a massive tribute to Italy itself.

To begin the William Tell Overture with five solo cellos was adventurous in 1829 and it still astonishes. The front desks of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra dispatched it beautifully, as did the violins the soaring Traviata Prelude.

Busoni's Piano Concerto is the biggest in the repertoire: five movements, 70 minutes long, both enigmatically philosophical and riotously tuneful, and a male-voice chorus in the finale to boot. Performances are rare and draw listeners from all four corners, particularly when Marc-Andre Hamelin, one of the most exciting pianists on the circuit, is the soloist.

Or is supposed to be. We returned from the interval to find only the chorus and a few wind players on-stage. Eventually, Mark Elder walked on and apologised that no one had warned Hamelin that the CBSO summer concerts begin half an hour earlier than usual: "He is, as I speak, making his way, unhurriedly, to the hall." Elder therefore offered an impromtu guide to the Concerto, establishing a rapport with the audience that bodes well for his new appointment to the Halle Orchestra in Manchester.

Hamelin's performance was astonishing. Busoni gives his soloist little chance to glitter: the piano part is often part of the orchestral fabric, elaborating material announced elsewhere. It is nonetheless hugely demanding. Hamelin played with concentrated passion: the music alive with detail, the rhythms sharply articulated, massive sonority and filigree delicacy side by side.

Elder, too, made Busoni's rich textures as clear as Mozart's, and by playing without breaks between movements, underlined the thematic coherence of the concerto; one saw why Busoni toyed with rechristening it Symphonie Italienne. Elder also found connections that aren't always obvious: the debt of Busoni's fourth-movement tarantella to Berlioz has never been clearer.

The highest praise I can give the performance is that it made this giddily cornucopic score sound simple. So the news that Hamelin and Elder took it into the studios immediately afterwards is thrilling; Hyperion have scheduled the release for the autumn.