Has any pianist packed so many notes in a two-hour span as Sara Davis Buechner in her Philadelphia calling-card recital? The latest addition to the Temple University piano faculty, she claims to love Mozart above all, but Friday at Rock Hall Auditorium memorialized Ferruccio Busoni in ways that translated into much hot, high-velocity playing.
A curious, rare-bird figure, Busoni (1866-1924) was a great pianist and composer, but is now best known for transcriptions that turned Bach's harpsichord works into big-fisted pianistic showcases for rock-star personalities. In this program, those various sides were featured and also played by Buechner in ways that were out to capture the 19th-century grand manner of Busoni's time with great quantities of music in even greater quantities of sound.
The Busoni version of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which Buechner programed, has stronger bass presence and emphasizes vertical chords that make the pieces more imposing - in contrast to the horizontal counterpoint heard from instruments of Bach's time. Entire variations are dropped. It's best considered in the same light as modern jazz improvisations on Bach by the likes of John Lewis and Jacques Loussier.
The concern isn't revealing the music's glorious coherence but conjuring effects. Some pianists make the Busoni-isms sound tasteful. Buechner's performance told you that's not what the music is for, favoring flashy, breakneck tempos that she sometimes couldn't quite play. But dropped notes didn't obscure her big pianistic statements.
In contrast to his great operas, Busoni's own Elegies takes the brooding late works of Liszt as a launching pad - with murky bass writing and galloping rhythms - but with such impulsive compositional vitality you could never predict where the piece was headed. The train of thought would be easier to follow with stronger melodic content. The pieces seem so personal you feel as if you're eavesdropping rather than being invited into the music. Buechner's playing was faultless, favoring a bright, forthright sonority.
Busoni's edition of Liszt's Grand Studies after Paganini - which puts the composer count up to three, all of them high-octane - redefines virtuosity. The music felt exalted one minute and rather cheap the next. The popular La Campanella, for one, loses much of its elegance, purposefully, because this music comes from a distant era of sport playing. Dusting it off is more than time-capsule exploration but explains a few things about our current pianistic zeitgeist.
Now, perhaps Buechner can move on to repertoires that better reveal her soul, because judging from her encore - a piece "Song for Two Girls" that she wrote about the immigrant families she lived near in the Bronx - there's plenty to reveal.