Long before shellac and the radio were invented, you could enjoy a live jukebox in Franz Liszt. He had sex appeal, popularized the piano and was a talented showman.
Liszt also drew a lance for composers such as Schubert, Berlioz and Wagner. An occasional sonata was always on the program and to please his audience, he played improvisations on songs. Especially popular were his transcriptions of opera favorites by Verdi, Rossini and Meyerbeer. Wagner wrote in 1849 that he eagerly looked forward to hearing Liszt's paraphrases of Tannhäuser. The following year, Liszt conducted the first performance of Lohengrin in Weimar.
The Israeli Wagner expert Asher Fisch is known as a conductor in the major opera houses and the Australian label Melba recorded his technically superb interpretation of the Ring cycle in 2004.
The same company has now recorded Fisch as pianist, playing seven of the fourteen Liszt paraphrases of Wagner's operas. On the opening track, ‘Am stillen Herd’ from Meistersinger, we hear the virtuoso Liszt set loose at the expense of content. But the piece gives Fisch a chance to prove he can handle parallel octaves and piano firework with verve.
In ‘Spinnerlied’ from Der fliegende Holländer the semiquaver triplets effectively mimic the sound of spinning wheels. Liszt weaves in – as a tribute – an inversion of the Tristan chord and it all sounds better than the original. Fisch plays with a vengeance, while retaining the steady pulse of a conductor. Wisely, he avoids highlighting vocal melody in Liebestod (Liszt coined the title!) which does not differ dramatically from the orchestral version.
In the entrance of the guests to Wartburg from Tannhäuser, Liszt achieves an imaginative flow. Fisch portrays a brisk orchestral brilliance in the march and, thanks to superb pedaling, plays the embellishments well – a joy to hear.