In total Liszt composed fourteen paraphrases on Wagner’s
music between 1849 and 1871. Half of them can be heard on this
disc, complemented by three small pieces by Wagner himself.
Some years ago Asher Fisch conducted the complete Ring
cycle at performances in Adelaide, performances that were recorded
and issued by Melba and were enthusiastically received by reviewers,
including myself. Besides some superb singing from Stuart Skelton,
Lisa Gasteen, Deborah Riedel, John Bröcheler and others
it was the conducting of Mr Fisch that made a lot of us take
down the Thesaurus to find suitable superlatives when ‘idiomatic’,
‘superb’ and ‘excellent’ felt bland
and uninspiring. Now comes this disc as a kind of sequel, in
time for the forthcoming bicentenary celebrations next year.
Again Fisch proves that he is very much inside the idiom as
a pianist as well. Question is whether this is a Wagner disc
or a Liszt disc. Wagner provides the raw-material but Liszt
is not content to transcribe the music to a piano reduction,
along the lines of his transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies.
Instead he often amends the material and changes harmonies,
and that is what a paraphrase is. The New Penguin English
Dictionary (2000) defines paraphrase as ‘a restatement
of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form’
which implies that the ‘paraphraser’ has great freedom
to treat the material according to his/her personality. It was
quite common during the 19th century that pianists
borrowed material from popular operas and made their own ‘elaborations’,
often to show off their technical prowess; Liszt was no exception.
The composers, very often, didn’t mind since these show-pieces
made the music better known and people went to the opera house
to hear the original. This was long before the recording of
music was possible. Liszt, more than most of his competitors,
was a great composer in his own right and many of his paraphrases
are valuable as compositions. He paraphrased Verdi, Bellini,
Donizetti, Gounod, Meyerbeer and Mozart but when he approached
Wagner’s music it was with a different aim: ‘modest
propaganda on the inadequate piano for the sublime genius of
Wagner’. Wagner was enthusiastic.
It is impossible to convey a sense of the colours of Wagner’s
marvellous orchestral scores on a piano but Liszt manages surprisingly
well. Today every Wagner-lover knows the orchestral sounds of
Wagner and can easily conjure up from memory what it sounds
like. For the 19th century listener with no knowledge
of Wagner, sometimes with little experience of orchestral music
at all, this must have been a tougher nut to crack. Even though
Liszt couldn’t convey the colours he could create the
atmosphere, and this he does constantly throughout this programme.
The mighty crescendo of the Pilgrim Chorus from Tannhäuser
is one such instance, the frail and transparent Song to the
Evening Star from the same opera is another. Truly stunning
is the third excerpt from this opera, The Entrance of the
Guests, where the trumpet fanfares blow the brains out.
I noticed that I automatically crouched in my chair. There are
traces of bombast in the Meistersinger excerpt, but I
have heard more blatant examples of this in other works by Liszt.
By and large it is the many delicacies of ‘instrumentation’
that stand out and linger in one’s memory.
Wagner was allegedly not a very accomplished pianist but he
did in fact compose some music for the instrument, mostly quite
early in his career. The three short pieces that are fillers
here are however from his mature life. The first of them, the
Albumblatt für Frau Betty Schott was written as
late as 1875 when he was past sixty. Betty was the wife of Wagner’s
publisher Franz Schott. Ankunft bei den schwarzen Schwänen
(Arrival among the black Swans) from 1861 also need an explanation.
That year Wagner stayed as guest in the house of a Count Albrecht
Pourtalès in Paris. In the garden was a pool with two
black swans. Wagner became very fond of the birds and wrote
this little piece to the Countess. There are echoes of Tristan
und Isolde, which he had just finished at the time. From
the same year comes the last work. Fürstin M was Princess
Pauline von Metternich, married to the Habsburg ambassador to
Paris. The Princess had helped Wagner to organize the first
production of Tannhäuser in Paris. These pieces
are delightful little encores to this delightful programme.
Asher Fisch was previously unknown to me as a pianist but his
playing is as delightful as the music and Melba’s recording
is in the demonstration class.