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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) transcr. August
Stradal (1860-1930) Die Walküre: Siegmund's Love-Song [4:12]; The
Ride of the Valkyries [4:21]; End of the Last Act [17:34] Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [6:17]; Götterdämmerung: Rhine Journey [7:53]; Siegfried's
Funeral March [9:17] Wesendonck Lieder [26:45]
Juan Guillermo Vizcarra (piano)
rec. 17–19 July 2012, Winspear Hall, University of North Texas,
Denton, Texas USA TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0151 [71:56]
While I was thoroughly enjoying myself listening to this disc an analogy
sprang to mind regarding 19th Century war-horse piano transcriptions.
It struck me that – from a 'modern' perspective – they
are rather like a great steam locomotive, totally redundant and outmoded
but actually rather inspiring and a triumph of engineering!
I have written before that I have an enduring pleasure in hearing a
good transcription of something utterly preposterous ... and what could
be more preposterous than transcribing Wagner’s Ring for solo
piano? The key to raising both the transcription and indeed the performance
of it hangs on several far less absurd considerations. These are as
follows. How well does the transcriber retain the essence of
the work in question? How successfully does the transcriber satisfy
the twin musical imperatives of writing a work pleasing as both a virtuoso
piano piece and as ‘simple’ music? Lastly, how well is the performer
able to surmount the vast technical hurdles implied by the genre whilst
producing a performance of real musical value? The reason for my pleasure
in this disc is that on every count I would have to say: very well indeed.
To start with the composer/transcriber; August Stradal was yet another
of those acolytes of Liszt who seem to have spent a good part of their
creative careers trying to out-arrange their master. One can imagine
an unspoken conflict between Liszt’s many disciples each trying desperately
to produce piano music of ever greater complexity and virtuosity. Along
the way Stradal had Bruckner as a teacher and in later life provided
important biographical information on both those masters. He also transcribed
Bruckner’s Symphonies 1-2 and 5-8 for piano … now there’s a project
for Toccata to consider! For those interested the Bruckner transcriptions
as well as the 2 Liszt Symphonies, Brandenburg No.3 and other works
too can be viewed and downloaded from the IMSLP website – unfortunately
none of the works recorded here can be so viewed.
I quite enjoy playing a little game when listening to transcriptions
such as this – it’s called “count the imaginary fingers”. The closer
you get to twenty the better. Pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra makes
a staggeringly powerful case for these transcriptions and he is no mean
interpreter of Wagner either. The six excerpts from the Ring
are grouped sensibly together in chronological order. Hence the disc
opens with three selections from Die Walküre. The first two
are rather dwarfed by an extended transcription of its closing pages.
Siegmund’s Love-song comes first and shows Stradal’s skill
at retaining the original voicing of the opera with the hero ‘singing’
in the middle register of the keyboard and the ‘orchestra’ fully represented
above and below. Vizcarra is especially skilled at layering the dynamics
within these complex textures ensuring that the ear is guided to primary
and secondary material. He is a very dynamic player – his performance
had me thinking back to the days of LPs and Michael Ponti’s trail-blazing
discs on Vox-Turnabout of various Opera paraphrases. Occasionally I
did wonder if Vizcarra was overly-muscular which, allied to a quite
close and dynamic recording, does risk ‘virtuosity-awareness-fatigue-syndrome’.
Conversely, this is music that should overwhelm one in whatever
format it is performed. Vizcarra goes on to prove that he is by no means
‘just’ a virtuoso. Indeed I found his pacing of the seventeen minute
selection from the end of Die Walküre very impressive. Likewise
the single excerpt from Siegfried – Forest Murmurs
– is beautifully paced. I say this even if just occasionally the leading
melodic line feels a fraction heavy in comparison to the accompanying
material but I do feel rather mean-spirited mentioning this.
Malcolm MacDonald in his predictably fascinating and insightful liner
cites the two Götterdämmerung excerpts as representing the
apogee of Stradal’s art with regard to Wagner. Certainly the sheer complexity
of textures that he is able to retain from the original version of Siegfried’s
Rhine Journey is astonishing. Again I find Vizcarra’s pacing of
the closing pages which then lead with seamless skill into Siegfried’s
Funeral March wholly convincing. Given that so much of the orchestral
texture in this extraordinarily valedictory passage is built on long-held
chords building crescendi this is the one time a piano struggles to
maintain the illusion of the original. This is for the simple and obvious
fact that a piano cannot play a crescendo without repeating a note or
chord. That aside Vizcarra is a very impressive interpreter and Stradal’s
transcription builds to a remarkably powerful climax replete with little
sky-bursts of keyboard flurries and virtuoso gestures.
Sensibly, the final third of the disc is devoted to a far less rhetorical
and grandly dramatic transcription of the five Wesendonck Lieder.
These do already exist in the original version for piano and
voice. MacDonald explains that Stradal stays essentially faithful to
Wagner’s original except in two respects; he changes the order of the
songs and moves the vocal line into the middle register again whilst
at the same time moving Wagner’s right-hand piano part up the octave.
This has the twin effect of making that element of the accompaniment
sound immediately more ‘brilliant’ whilst keeping the now inner vocal
line clear of conflicting part-writing. Vizcarra is beautifully poetic
throughout the cycle although again I occasionally wondered if he strove
too hard to give the inner/vocal line prominence. Especially since the
placing of this line in a tenor/baritone register changes the feel quite
significantly from their mezzo-soprano original. Again this seems like
minor carping when one has been given the opportunity to hear such startlingly
effective transcriptions in such convincing performances.
Toccata Classics is one of my favourite labels with the questing and
quirky nature of the repertoire they offer very much a reflection on
the tastes and passions their founder and executive producer Martin
Anderson. This disc is another excellent example of his sure-fire sense
of rare and unknown music well worth restoring and exploring. More Wagner
please but a set of the Bruckner transcriptions really would be something.