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.