Ferruccio Busoni's posthumous opera Doktor Faust was premiered in Dresden on May 21, 1925.
Pianist, composer, teacher, theorist, and writer, Busoni (1866-1924) had died the previous year, leaving his masterwork incomplete. His faithful disciple, Philip Jarnach, made the premiere possible by completing the final scene.
It was not until 1984 however, that the musicologist and conductor Antony Beaumont put together an alternate, longer ending following the sketches and drafts left by the composer. Both endings can be heard on this new recording, only the second ever made of Busoni's lyrical masterpiece after Ferdinand Leitner's effort for Deutsche Grammophon in 1969, featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role.
It's hard to understand why this wonderful opera has spent so long in virtual oblivion. Faustian subject, subtle libretto, inspired music: all of these elements combine to build a unique work of art with tremendous dramatic impact and mystical implications. The problem probably lies in the style: neither romantic nor classical, the unclassifiable Busoni is too modern for the conservative and too conservative for the modern. Premiered only a few months before the triumph of Alban Berg's Wozzeck--a seminal work that changed the way operas were conceived--Doktor Faust doesn't fit any usual category. The libretto, written by Busoni himself, not after Goethe's Faust as one would expect, but after the popular puppet theatre play, tells a slightly different version of Faust's story and adopts an audacious structure consisting of a Symphonia, two Prologues, an Intermezzo, a principal action subdivided into three scenes, and an Epilogue. The music mostly evolves in a dreamy atmosphere, supported by an orchestration that's by turns glowing, menacing, scintillating, and opaque, and by writing that's dominated by abundant counterpoint and strange harmonic twists.
All his life, the pianist-composer was looking for some kind of magic quality in his music, and he seems finally to have found it with this incomplete opera, rich in moments of intense suggestion and hypnotic beauty. A master of transcription, Busoni continuously gives his own creation new shapes and forms--an unusual skill too often mistaken for lack of inspiration. Throughout the opera the listener can recognize material borrowed from or included in works written earlier or simultaneously with Doktor Faust. To give just a few examples: the first Prologue exploits parts of the Sonatina seconda for piano; we hear bits of Tanzwalzer for orchestra in the wedding procession of the Duke and Duchess of Parma; and the wonderful Aria of the Duchess also is the central part of the Toccata for piano. Busoni's music alternates between very different moods, from the sarcastic encounter with Mephistopheles to the moving Intermezzo with the soldier, from the metaphysical nobility of the orchestral Sarabande to the transfigured ending.