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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Piano Transcriptions
Chitose Okashiro (piano)
J. Y. Song (piano 4 hands)
rec. 1999, New York, USA
Reviewed as download

The US-based Japanese pianist Chitose Okashiro is no stranger to the pages of Musicweb International – her 2002 realisation of the Mahler First Symphony for solo piano (review) so astonished my colleague Paul Serotsky that he made it one of his Recordings of the Year and when I did my survey on all the recordings of that symphony, I, too, was so impressed that I gave it a ‘wild-card’ nomination as one of my top recommendations of some 200 or so recordings. What we have under review here is a reissue of her 1999 Wagner Transcriptions recital on MP3, which I was curious to hear, especially after having been so bowled over by her Mahler. The sound reproduced on this disc by Pro Piano’s 24-bit PPR (Piano Perspective Recordings) is very fine in spite of its 20-year-old vintage and captures the Hamburg Steinway D 0160 used extremely well, even if I felt there was a slight lack of ambience overall to the sound.

It is somewhat inevitable that the quite extraordinary orchestral music Wagner penned for his operas should also find itself transcribed for piano, not least since for a long time that would have been the only way most people would ever have been able to experience it. Of course, the name of Franz Liszt dominates the first transcriptions made and it is his arrangements that still seem to dominate the repertoire even to this day, but there are also other transcribers, most notably Louis Brassin, Moritz Moszkowski, August Stradal and Carl Tausig, while many pianists such as Ernest Schelling and Zoltán Kocsis themselves saw fit to arrange this music for their instrument and it is the latter, non-Liszt group that Ms Okashiro has decided to focus on for her album.

It opens with the Prelude to Act I of Tristan, in the arrangement by Zoltán Kocsis, which seems somewhat truer to the music than the more harmonically daring alternative version by Ernest Schelling. The opening is quite magical in the hands of Ms Okashiro’s hands; she captures a delicacy as well as an underlying sadness, punctuated by outbursts of searing passion, to a remarkable degree, even when compared to Zoltán Kocsis’ own recording on Philips. Indeed, as the Prelude melts into the Moszkowski arranged Liebestod, it seems to my ears that Ms Okashiro truly identifies not just with the music, but with the opera too – her pacing of the love-death climax is almost transcendental and yet it is the close that is the most remarkable. When compared to Severin von Eckardstein in the same arrangement (on MDG, 2013), he keeps the closing pages strictly in tempo, whereas Ms Okashiro slows down daringly, as if, like two lovers who cannot bear to leave each other, the final low A coming as almost as a surprise, followed by the gentlest of arpeggios, as if Isolde is caressing the dead Tristan’s cheek for the final time; the sense of timing is truly remarkable, as well as very moving, here.

This identification with the actual operas is evidenced later on in this recital too, when during the Feuerzauber (Magic Fire) music, she brings the bass-line representing Wotan’s voice to the forefront (as it would be in the opera), whereas with Eckardstein it is more fully integrated into the overall sound picture. Both pianists are, of course, supreme virtuosos and both are equally adept at suggesting Wagner’s flickering fire in Louis Brassin’s masterly arrangement, but it is Ms Okashiro who seems to be more familiar with the drama that is unfolding, of a father saying a final farewell to his daughter and ultimately, it is her reading which resonates in the memory.

Lest this should sound as if Ms Okashiro is perhaps somewhat one-dimensional, I must point out that the Wagner-Moszkowski Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser flies out the blocks, glittering and sparkling so much under Ms Okashiro’s fingers that no self-respecting pilgrim could possibly resist its charms, before it rises to a climax where you wonder how many fingers this pianist has. Likewise, the inevitable Ride of the Valkyries is every inch the pianistic whirlwind you could wish for.

The choice of transcriptions for this release is fascinating. I’m told by pianist friends that with the Liebestod arrangement, the Liszt is for piano virtuosos, but the Moszkowski is for those who wonder what the music might have sounded like if it had been written for the piano rather than orchestra. Of course, neither can do justice when compared to a Wagner orchestra in full flight, but it is good to be able to hear the Moszkowski version for once, instead of the more familiar Liszt arrangement, as favoured by Horowitz, Barenboim and countless others on record. The Brassin arrangement of the Ride of the Valkyries is a more brilliant (and pitched slightly higher) arrangement than the one made by Carl Tausig, who seems to wish to capture the power of the music, perhaps slightly at the expense of its rip-roaring virtuosity and can be heard instead of another fine album of Wagnerian transcriptions by Risto-Matti Marin on the Alba label (review), who also provides the alternative Tristan Prelude by Ernest Schelling mentioned above, plus a remarkable ‘Paraphrase on the themes of The Flying Dutchman’ by Jukka Nykanen. His disc, although not as well recorded as Ms Okashiro’s, compliments this one under review with its alternative versions, as does the previously mentioned Severin von Eckardstein, who on MDG includes piano transcriptions from Parsifal too. Juan Guillermo Vizcarra issued two discs around 2015 on Toccata Classics with arrangements by August Stadal, a pupil of Liszt who seemed hell-bent on outdoing his teacher with arranging as much Wagner as possible for the keyboard and if that wasn’t enough, then started transcribing the Bruckner symphonies for piano, too! Glenn Gould (on Sony) is, as always, hors concours, but his way with his arrangement of the Meistersinger Prelude is life-enhancing and is a must-hear for both piano afficionados and Wagnerians (although his conducting debut with the Siegfried Idyll cannot be judged a success - a great pity in light of his arrangement of the same piece for piano). However, none of these issues matches the emotional nuances found by Ms Okashiro in this music on this disc.

I suppose the five minute finale of the Fauré-Messager Souvenir of Bayreuth is a way of ending the album on a more light-hearted note, but this music is mere candy-floss pastiche compared to what has come previously and leads me to my one criticism of the disc, inasmuch as 55 minutes is rather short measure, a situation compounded by including the somewhat trivial (in my opinion) Souvenir, however well played and persuasive it may be in the hands of Ms Okashiro (in an arrangement for four hands, this time partnered with JY Song). That comparative short measure is the only reason why I feel that a MWI “Recommended” accolade cannot be given here. Instead, one wonders what magic Ms Okashiro would have created if she had instead included Brassin’s arrangement of the Forest Murmurs, for example, or what tragic drama she would have found in Siegfried’s Funeral Music as arranged by Busoni. Glenn Gould’s quasi-improvisatory arrangement of the Siegfried Idyll seems tailor-made for Ms Okashiro’s almost spell-binding keyboard poetry and if all this sounds somewhat mealy-mouthed, it is only because I was so keen to hear more of this pianist in this music. Quite how this poetess of the keyboard has eluded a contract with one of the major labels is totally beyond me – meantime though, until that happens, we should be grateful for what we do have of her.

Lee Denham

Tristan und Isolde
Wagner-Kocsis: Einleitung [8:50]
Wagner-Moszkowski: Isoldens Tod [8:57]
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Wagner-Brassin: Der Ritt der Walküren [5:29]
Wagner-Brassin: Feuerzauber [4:50]
Wagner-Brassin:  Sigmunds Liebesgesang [4:45]
Wagner-Moszkowski: Der Venusberg [14:48]
Gabriel Faure, Andre Messager: Souvenir of Bayreuth (Fantasy on themes from Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner for 4 hands) * [4:59]

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