“WAGNER and the Piano” = Severin von Eckardstein, p. – MD&G
“Magic Fire and Other WAGNER Transcriptions” = Risto-Matti Marin, p. – Alba

by | Feb 21, 2014 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“WAGNER and the Piano” = WAGNER/LOUIS BRASSIN: Valhalla; Siegmund’s Love Song; The Ride of the Valkyries; Magic Fire Music; Forest Murmurs; WAGNER/BUSONI: Siegfried’s Funeral Music; WAGNER/AUGUST STRADAL: Verwandlungsmusik and Good Friday Spell from “Parsifal”; SIDNEY CORBETT: Grabmal Kundry in memorium Hans Werner Henze; ZOLTÁN KOCSIS: Prelude to “Tristan und Isolde”; WAGNER/MORITZ MOSZKOWSKI: Isolde’s Death from “Tristan und Isolde” – Severin von Eckardstein, p. – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 904 1805-6 (2+2+2) [Distr. by E1], 75:40 ****:

“Magic Fire and Other WAGNER Transcriptions” = WAGNER/JUKKA NYKÄNEN: Paraphrase on the Themes of “The Flying Dutchman”; WAGNER/LISZT: Spinning Song from “The Flying Dutchman”; WAGNER/ERNEST SCHELLING: Prelude to “Tristan und Isolde”; WAGNER/LISZT: Valhalla; WAGNER/LOUIS BRASSIN: Siegmund’s Love Song; Magic Fire Music; WAGNER/CARL TAUSIG: The Ride of the Valkyries; WAGNER/BRASSIN: Forest Murmurs; WAGNER/BUSONI: Siegfried’s Funeral Music; WAGNER/LISTZ: “Tannhäuser” Overture – Risto-Matti Marin, p. –  Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 353 [Distr. by Albany], 71:39 ****:

Here’s a worthy pair of discs that should fill many of your needs for Wagner arranged for solo piano. The best thing is that while there’s some overlap (Louis Brassin’s and Feruccio Busoni’s arrangements of music from The Ring), it is limited and allows for some interesting comparisons of the playing of the two artists. And speaking of comparisons, we have two different rather takes on the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. Can’t decide? Get both discs; both have their different appeal.

First, the MD&G disc featuring Severin von Eckardstein playing a Steinway grand from 1901. For some listeners, the old piano will add interest to this release, with its glittery top end and pleasantly twangy midrange. I guess the justification for its use is that three of the arrangers (Busoni, Moszkowski, and Stradal) might well have worked out their transcriptions on a piano of this vintage. I confess that after the novelty had worn off (which was rather quickly), I listened much more aware of the pianism and the musicianship behind the arrangements. The first thing you notice in the work of Belgian Louis Brassin is that he’s content with a much more straightforward treatment than Franz Liszt ever was. Still, his Ride of the Valkyries very successfully captures the wild gyrations of those winged horses and the equally wild calls of the Valkyries themselves, finishing with a formidable clatter of ascending chords.

Speaking of chords, Brassin’s treatment of The Magic Fire Music alternates big chords and arpeggios; the chords at the start sound a bit chunky to me, and while it may seem presumptuous on my part, I’d suggest that broken chords might have helped give the start of the piece the same scintillant quality those swirling arpeggios do as it progresses. I have no such criticisms to lodge with Forest Murmurs, surprisingly delicate in its orchestral garb and equally so in Brassin’s treatment. What a contrast with the next piece, Siegfried’s Funeral Music, given a weighty, bass-heavy treatment by Busoni—and the Steinway’s rich bass register and sustaining pedal give it marvelous heft.

I have to say that August Stradal is a name new to me, but his arrangements of Wagner are prized by pianists. A student of Liszt and Bruckner, Stradal made piano reductions of the symphonies of both composers. His treatment of music from Parsifal ranges from the ethereal to the thunderously declamatory. In his notes, von Eckardstein confesses to lend the arranger a hand, so to speak: “Stradal attempts to reproduce a fitting measure of polyphony and richness of tone color on the piano, but it was precisely in the «Verwandlungsmusik» that it appealed to me to lend added and more vivid emphasis to a couple of sound levels with register shifts and textural thickenings.” I’m not sure where Stradal ends and von Eckardstein begins in this arrangement, but the results are seamless, faultlessly pianistic.

After Stradal’s frankly Lisztian treatment of Wagner’s music, the piece Grabmal Kundry (Kundry’s Tomb) by American composer Sidney Corbett is something of shock—a good one, though. His tribute to the recently deceased Hans Werner Henze is clearly not a strict transcription of music from Parsifal but a very contemporary-sounding “meditation” on Parsifal. Mostly static, highly dissonant, it’s clearly, painfully a meditation on death as well.

Contemporary Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis offers a traditional, beautifully crafted arrangement of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, and Romantic composer-pianist Moritz Moszkowski provides a suitable close to the program with his treatment of the final pages of the opera, throbbing and thrumming with (most of) the passion that Wagner built into the original.

Von Eckardstein’s program is a virtual comparison-contrast essay on Wagner in transcription, a fascinating collection of varied approaches played with great sensitivity and flair and of course outsized technique, requisite if you want to tackle the Busoni and Moszkowski. Beautifully spacious surround sound from MD&G makes this a disc worth seeking out for Wagnerians and piano lovers alike.

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The spirit of Liszt hovers over von Eckardstein’s program, but the hand of the composer is present in the one from Finnish pianist Risto-Matti Marin. Since Liszt is far and away the most familiar and celebrated arranger of Wagner, his inclusion would seem to make this a safer bit of programming, but for variety and a touch of the unfamiliar, Marin includes an arrangement by his countryman Jukka Nykänen and by American Ernest Schelling, as well as the better-known Carl Tausig. A great pupil of Liszt, Tausig is welcome here, especially since he offers a different perspective on The Ride of the Valkyries.

Ernest Schelling’s Prelude to Tristan is a bit soupier than Kocsis’, splashier and showier, as befits a Paderewski student. Marin plays it like the great High Romantic wallow of a piece that it is.

Among the Liszt arrangements on the program, that of Valhalla is one of the more famous. In it, Liszt writes not a strict arrangement but a restrained fantasy on the piece, including other music from the opera, as well as a number of pianistic flights of fancy in the form of twirling arpeggios, billowing scale passages, and clattering chords—in other words, a typical Lisztian metamorphosis. The other Liszt arrangements are more faithful to Wagner’s originals though they, too, manage to explore the coloristic potential of the piano.

As expected, the Lisztian Carl Tausig produces a much more flamboyant take on the Ride of the Valkyries than does Louis Brassin, a wild ride indeed, played with breathtaking intensity by Marin. Brassin’s Forest Murmurs arrangement is a sweet balm after all this crash and clatter of keys. Marin is a bit faster and lighter of touch here than is von Eckardstein, and conversely, he’s more stately in pace, more portentous in his rendering of Busoni’s Funeral March transcription. Vive la difference.

The program concludes with Liszt’s monumental arrangement of the Tannhäuser Overture, a fantastically athletic display for the pianist and about as showy a close as I can imagine. In fact, the presence of the Liszt and Tausig arrangements make this a showier program altogether than von Eckardstein’s but also a more traditional one, if that’s the right word. Again, vive la difference.

Marin is fairly closely miked, and there’s less air around his piano than there is in the MD&G recording. The sound is also a little less bright, less “toppy,” though this is perhaps a function of the difference in instruments. The more robust, up-front recording matches the music and Marin’s approach quite well. Do I have a favorite between these recordings? No. I’ll take both, which is my advice to you. Excellent in either the stereo or multichannel SACD options.

—Lee Passarella

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