Two busts greet visitors to the concert hall of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki: one of Ferruccio Busoni, who taught there from 1888 to 1890 when it was The Helsinki Music Institute, the other of  Sibelius himself, who was Busoni’s student and lifelong friend. Alumnus Sakari Oramo returned to Symphony Hall to lead his countryman’s Symphony no. 3 in C major and Busoni’s rarely performed, grandiose Concerto in C for Piano, Orchestra and Men’s Chorus with Kirill Gerstein.

Sakari Oramo and Kirill Gerstein with the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Sakari Oramo and Kirill Gerstein with the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

If Sibelius had any religion at all, it was Nature. His Third Symphony has occupied a space between his Second and Fourth like Beethoven’s Sixth between his Fifth and Seventh – a sunlit, pastoral interlude full of buoyant energy and simple, folkloric charm. Formally, it marks the beginning of his transition from full-blown Romanticism to an ever sparer, more Classical mode of expression (urged on by Busoni), here with a sound profile anchored by strings and winds, primarily the softer-edged flute and clarinet, and a restrained dynamic range.

Oramo led a performance as sunny and exuberant as the radiant yellow pocket square bursting from his black gakuran, yet with a ruminant, prayerful undertone mindful of recently discovered links between the symphony and a projected oratorio. In this light, Sibelius’ paean to Nature acquires more weight and the bewildering “Amen" cadences which come out of nowhere to close the first movement take on a new relevance and meaning, while the limited dynamics become an admonition to listen.

In 1912 Busoni described his sprawling, 1904 piano concerto as an attempt to gather together the strands of his creative life and sum up the “first period of manhood”. The piece’s five movements constitute his portrait of the man as a young artist. Busoni’s art recognized  no national or temporal boundaries. It was all-inclusive and a-historical, embracing what he came to call, “the omnipresence of time.” Thus Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Rossini, Schumann and Wagner trip over each other in a heady, layered pastiche of their styles and quirks while competing for attention with popular, Italian music ranging from the brass-band marches and fanfares of the Bersaglieri, to the strains of  the patriotic La bella gigogin and the Neapolitan song, long attributed to Bellini and oft quoted by Liszt,  Fenesta ca lucive. The latter is, in fact, a thread running through the concerto, starting out as the second theme of the second movement, returning in the fourth filtered through the Rossini of La danza, then taking on a demonic tone to toll like the Symphonie fantastique's Dies irae, before finally popping in at the close.

Along the way, Busoni marshals hyperbole to explode romantic tropes and conventions along with the contemporaneous mannerisms of pianistic virtuosity which had been his bread and butter. In embracing all he has been as person, performer and composer, the 38-year old virtuoso, in effect, clears his throat as he sets out to find his own true voice and become more fully himself. A review of the Berlin première dismissed the concerto as “a hellish din”. Alfred Brendel has called it “monstrously overwritten”. Oramo and Gerstein made no apologies for the piece’s potentially shambolic excesses; they embraced them with zeal and humor.

Perhaps only a recording can fully allow for the stamina and concentration necessary to keep nearly 80 minutes of unrelenting, exacting playing from devolving into a series of clangorous, tumid gestures. That both orchestra and soloist managed to avoid this pitfall is testimony to their commitment and preparation. Their physical efforts alone were worthy of applause. Regardless, whether muscular or lyrical, loud or soft, both Gerstein, and the orchestra, were always musical and convincing.

Busoni’s final movement leads not to an “Ode to Joy” nor to Goethe’s invocation of the “Eternal Feminine,” but to a mystical hymn praising Allah and the regenerative power of an enduring past, taken from Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin. Busoni preferred having the chorus out of sight, their voices being perceived as an additional layer of pure sound floating across the infinite. Guest Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya prepared the Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in such a way that they seemed  to be singing from afar even though they were standing on risers behind the orchestra.

Busoni appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony 34 times between 1891 and 1911 and lived in the city that first year teaching at the New England Conservatory. Yet this was the orchestra’s first performance of his concerto. It was an auspicious debut and about time.