A disc that builds on all of the good impressions carried forward from Volume 1
. I will let readers refer to my earlier review for information about August Stradal. After the experience of volume 1 the sheer technical skill of pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra now comes as a given. What does please me even more is the reinforced sense that in purely musicianly terms he is a very impressive interpreter of Wagner. With works transcribed on such a mind-boggling scale and with such demands made on the player it would be very easy for such a recital simply to lurch from one passage of jaw-dropping technical address to the next. For sure Vizcarra is thrillingly virtuosic whenever required but it is in the reflective and lyrical passages that his interpretative skill shines through.
In this volume we are given four of Donald Tovey's dreaded "bleeding chunks" together with one Free Phantasy. The latter gives Stradal more opportunity to impose his own personality on the resulting work. By ordering and juxtaposing sections and themes from the opera in his own way he manages to create an 'impression' of the overall work which the simple presentation of an isolated scene cannot. Malcolm MacDonald's ever-informative liner reminds us that this is a format originated by Liszt in his 'operatic reminiscences'. Curiously, Stradal avoids using much, if any, of what might be considered the opera's three set-pieces; the Preludes to Acts I and III or Elsa's Entrance into the Cathedral. Given the same production team and venue as Volume 1 it is again no surprise that the engineering is as impressive as before; well able to cope with the thunderous climaxes which Vizcarra is able to draw from his New York Steinway without ever descending into the clangorous.
As always, the transcriber for keyboard has to wrestle with the problem of transferring passages of lyrical writing onto an instrument incapable of sustaining a dynamic without repeating a note. Occasionally in the recital this tremolando technique - 'woggles' in Percy Grainger's idiosyncratic parlance - does rather outstay its welcome but I'm not sure any transcriber could achieve a better effect or have it better executed than here. Certainly in the Lohengrin Phantasy Stradal is able to minimise this simply by avoiding music that might require it or moving on before the effect palls. Vizcarra is again masterly at layering the voicings of the complex writing. He creates a brilliant aural illusion of three and sometimes more coherent musical lines playing simultaneously each with their own dynamic and tonal colour.
The Tristan und Isolde Act II Love Duet is the work where - in MacDonald's words - the need for a "true, even and, if possible timeless sostenuto that the piano is powerless to provide" tests Stradal's skills to the limit. Rather than relying on a square chordal repetition Stradal gives the music a gently insistent syncopating pulse. It's a tiny adaptation but enough to give the music direction and impetus. Again Vizcarra is very good at pacing the twelve minute arc of this excerpt and he creates exactly the right atmosphere of held rapture that embodies the passage.
In the closing scene of Rheingold - from the forging of the Rainbow Bridge - in many ways Stradal has an easier task. Not in the sense of putting into just two hands a vast amount of musical information but in the way this passage is defined by big gestures and pictorial writing. If Vizcarra excelled at gentle rapture in Tristan here he displays the scale of his technical address with the most overtly virtuosic playing on the disc. Endless cascading arpeggios underlying heroic fanfares lead to the climactic forging - excellently paced again - before the music falls back to the Rhine music that closes the opera. Given the sheer volume of notes in these transcriptions I find it rather mind-boggling to read that Vizcarra has added
lines - usually vocal - from the Wagner originals that Stradal left out. Not having access to the original scores I cannot be sure to what degree these additions are made; suffice to say that they are seamless and do not compromise in any way Vizcarra's ability to convey the essence of the music.
The spiritual poise of the opening of the Good Friday Spell from Parsifal is another fine example of Vizcarra's ability to allow the music to gently unfurl over an extended period. Probably, most of all, this is music that suffers most from the need for 'woggles' and the main central climax is diminished here by not being able to be a single panel of sustained sound. Conversely the thematic complexity and multi-layered strands of the closing pages from Siegfried are brilliantly rendered by Stradal onto the keyboard. At the risk of being repetitious, I find Vizcarra's pacing of the main Siegfried motif - the one Wagner used in his Idyll of the same name - absolutely perfect; poised yet with a simple authority that ideally captures the moment. Interestingly, the limitation of a single keyboard allows the ear to hear more of how Wagner wove together the various motivic threads in a way that a full orchestra with singers can somehow obscure by nature of the sheer weight of sound involved. Listening to these transcriptions can be seen as a useful preparatory stage to appreciating the operas. Credit for this skilful dissection/distillation of the massive originals must be shared by both arranger and performer. Aside from the opening Phantasie the Siegfried excerpt is the longest selection on the disc and proves to be a fitting and powerful conclusion to this impressive disc. If there are enough Stradal transcriptions for a Volume 3 that will be warmly welcomed - if not, I hope Vizcarra will turn his attention to the same arranger's versions of the Bruckner Symphonies.
As ever with Toccata, this is an excellently presented and carefully prepared release with high quality engineering to match the imaginative programming. This is made all the poignant when you realise that the liner note by Malcolm Macdonald was the last he wrote before his untimely death in May 2014 - Vizcarra contributes a personal appreciation to the note. Any disc graced with a liner by MacDonald you knew would benefit from his insight, fine musicianship and literary skill. His lasting legacy will be to have transformed his private passion for composers such as Havergal Brian and John Foulds - amongst others - into an enduring public appreciation of their work. I am pleased to report that MacDonald's final work should adorn such a fine disc as this.