Wagner/Liszt, Tannhäuser Overture &
‘O Du Mein Holder Abendstern’
Liszt, Vallée D’obermann &
Grosses Konzertsolo (Revised By Louie Lortie)
I entered the Wigmore Hall with the preconception
that nobody can play Wagner’s transcriptions
or paraphrases like the German pianist Stefan Mikisch,
who has made a speciality of this music. Hr Mikisch
is content with a career based mainly on lecture-recitals
and gives the season-long, midday series of introductions
to the operas at the Bayreuth Festival each year.
This is in complete contrast to the Canadian pianist
for this Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, Louis Lortie,
who has garnered critical acclaim for the ‘fresh
perspective and individuality’ he brings to
a deliberately broad spectrum of keyboard music.
Wagner’s music has incredibly intense emotional
power and theatricality, whereas Liszt’s transcriptions
are works of pianistic brilliance, bringing off Wagner's
orchestral music on the piano with a combination of
the former’s harmonic and melodic genius and
the latter’s virtuosic keyboard ability. Other
than a few youthful efforts and student pieces in
the early 1830s, Wagner composed little for the piano.
Liszt, in contrast, chose to arrange for piano works
of promising composers he felt deserved a wider audience,
Wagner among them. He began by transcribing the Tannhäuser
Overture in 1848 and continued right up to his death
in 1886, and this remained the principal way people
heard Wagner’s music outside of the opera house.
Liszt had a restless intellect and he was also ceaselessly
creative, seeking the new in music. The greatest pianist
of his time and inventor of the modern piano recital,
he composed some of the most difficult piano music
ever written. In February 1849, he wrote to Wagner:
‘Talking of people with good sense, do you
know what I mean to do? No more nor less than to appropriate
for the piano, after my fashion, the overture of Tannhäuser
and the whole scene "O du mein holder Abendstern"
of the third act. As to the former, I believe that
it will meet with few executants capable mastering
its technical difficulties, but the scene of the "Abendstern"
should be within easy reach of second-class pianists
… I should like to have it published soon …
and when we meet, I shall have the impertinence to
play you with my two hands your overture, such as
I have prepared it for my particular use.'
Clearly the Tannhäuser was too difficult
for Louis Lortie and it occasionally reminded me of
Tom (the cat) playing the piano at the Hollywood Bowl
hammering away and chasing Jerry (the mouse) up and
down the keyboard. Lortie’s playing seemed ill
at ease, particularly during the difficult finger
runs. He was more comfortable with the plaintive ‘O
du mein holder Abendstern’. I cannot believe
he was helped by playing his piano of choice, an Italian
Fazioli. To my ears it was an unyieldingly steely
sounding instrument, possibly unsuited to the Wigmore
Hall, though on the transmission that I later heard
it seemed to reveal more warmth of tone than was apparent
in the hall.
Whilst my admiration for Mikisch and his performances
of Wagner remain undiminished, Lortie was much more
at ease with Liszt’s own compositions, despite
the fact they cover much of the same emotional ground
as the Wagner and retain many of the technical difficulties.
The composition of the three volumes of the Années
de pèlerinage took more than forty years
but it contains some of Liszt’s most important
and most popular music. The Première année:
Suisse, was composed in 1836 and the Vallée
d’Obermann, the longest of them, is the
sixth of the Première année.
Liszt pays homage to Sénancour, the French
writer of Obermann, and to the values expressed
in his novel with music that is densely written and
full of magnificent pianistic effects. It is melancholic
with echoes of Tchaikovsky’s future Eugene
Onegin and rich in pathos, not to mention being
highly audacious from a harmonic point of view. The
ending (part Wagner, part foreshadowing Gershwin)
introduces a sense of optimism, and even ecstasy,
that is particularly effective and this was brought
out in Lortie’s reading.
The recital concluded with Liszt’s Grosses
Konzertsolo – as revised by Lortie himself
to make it ‘more powerful and coherent structurally’.
This is a finely dramatic piece that precedes his
later Sonata in B minor. Originally intended as a
competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire - but
deemed too demanding - it retains the whiff of the
bravura showpiece item about it and, at times, I imagined
it as the piano accompaniment to a flickering silent
Eisenstein film. Lortie blended the eloquent poetry
of the Andante sostenuto middle section with the (at
last) fully radiant Tannhäuser references,
through the tremolandos and glittering textures to
the glorious conclusion. It was a triumph for both
the composer and the soloist.
© Jim Pritchard