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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 36: Wagner Transcriptions
Zwei Stücke aus Tannhäuser und Lohengrin, S445/R278 (1852)
No. 2 Elsas Brautzug zum Münster [6:34]
Isoldes Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde, S447/R280 (1867) [7:18]
Phantasiestück über Motive aus Rienzi Santo Spirito cavaliere, S439/R272 (1859) [9:00]
Pilgerchor aus dem Oper Tannhäuser, S443/R276 (c. 1861) [5:15]
Aus Lohengrin, S446/R279 (1854)
No. 1 Festspiel und Brautlied [11:29]
No. 2 Lohengrins Verweis [4:24]
Spinnerlied aus dem Fliegenden Holländer, S440/R273 (1860) [6:21]
Ballade aus dem Fliegenden Holländer, S441/R274 (publ. 1873) [4:53]
Aus Lohengrin, S446/R279 (1854)
No. 2 Elsas Traum [4:05]
Feierlicher Marsch zum heiligen Gral aus Parsifal, S450/R283 (1862) [10:38]
William Wolfram (piano)
rec. 20-21 May 2011, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.572895 [69:57]

Just in time to sneak in this review as the epic Wagner centenary draws to a close. On the transcription front - for piano at least - I much enjoyed Risto-Matti Marin’s fine collection, which contains just two of the pieces on this Wolfram CD (review). I first encountered William Wolfram in Liszt/Donizetti - and very good he is too (review). If anything I was even more impressed with his Liszt/Bellini (review). This corner of Naxos’s mammoth Liszt series has also produced other sets of transcriptions; among them is Stefan Mayer’s disc, which I found ‘beautiful, but lacking in soul’ (review). Indeed, I wrote there that I’d rather hear Wolfram in this repertoire.
They say we should be careful what we wish for. My initial response to this new disc was somewhat mixed; the power is there, but the poetry of Wolfram’s earlier CDs is harder to find. Elsa’s bridal procession, which starts well enough, is more muted and discursive than I’d expected. Also, his articulation isn’t as crisp as before, and textures seem a bit clotted too. What I miss most is that long, seamless line, the blend of anticipation and conflict that Liszt encapsulates so well. Cranking up the volume to suggest dramatic intensity is only half the story, and I suspect that’s all we get here. Ditto the Tristan, which is apt to turn in on itself rather than move inexorably towards those ambiguous final cadences.
That’s not to say there’s no magic here at all, it’s just that it tends to get lost amidst all that posturing. The sound is perfecly decent, although other recordings I’ve heard from the CBC studio - Wolfram’s especially - are more ingratiating. Back to the music, and the Rienzi piece is rather lovely; it would be even more appealing if Wolfram phrased more sensitively and refrained from those annoying agogic pauses. Liszt has done all the work, so it’s really not necessary to embellish or underline the music in this way.
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser certainly has the right devotional character, and Wolfram shapes and shades the music very well indeed. He also gets more of a sense of progress, of that long dramatic arch, and only spoils the effect slightly by sounding too excitable in the climaxes. Marin scales his Liszt/Wagner with far greater sensitivity and teases out the music’s buried colours to glorious effect. Admittedly Alba’s highly sophisticated Super Audio recording is a bonus. As for the Lohengrin transcriptions they are serviceable, but there’s a persistent - and frustrating - sense of the music being held at arm’s-length.
Wolfram just isn’t as communicative here as I know he can be, and that’s a pity. Still, the Spinning Chorus from Der Fliegender Holländer has much to commend it; if only the playing weren’t compromised by all those irritating mannerisms. Marin’s reading is altogether more rewarding, not least for its rhythmic felicities. Speaking of which Wolfram is a tad unyielding in Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin and the march from Parsifal; indeed, the latter is perhaps more somnolent than solemn, and it brings the disc to a somewhat unsatisfactory close.
As much as I admire Wolfram as a pianist this is a curiously uninvolving recital. At least Marin’s disc is a cause for celebration; apart from its many musical and sonic virtues it offers less-well-known transcriptions by other hands as well.
Musically this isn’t as good as Wolfram’s earlier discs; ditto the sonics.
Dan Morgan