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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Wagner without words

Llŷr Williams (piano)
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Recording details: March 2014
Wyastone Recording Studio, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Judith Sherman
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & Mike Hatch
Release date: September 2014
Total duration: 142 minutes 38 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega.

Pianist Llŷr Williams explores Wagner’s rich and evocative sound-world from a different perspective. Featuring insightful arrangements of Richard Wagner’s operas by Franz Liszt and Glenn Gould (as well as Williams’ own arrangement of music from Parsifal), at the centre of the programme is a selection of Wagner’s own piano pieces—many of which were written earlier in his compositional career, hinting at the grand operatic masterworks which were yet to come.


'The Welsh virtuoso's idea of juxtaposing a selection of Wagner's uneven piano works with transcriptions is pianophile catnip. Wagner's 'long-winded' Fantasy, written at 19, and his effusive Sonata for his Tristan muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, are the most substantial original items, surpassed by Liszt's elaborations of extracts from Tristan, Tannhauser and Rienzi. Williams's reduction of Glenn Gould's four-hand Meistersinger Overture and his own Parsifal arrangements are highlights. An uplifting disc. (The Sunday Times)

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Widely associated as Richard Wagner is with the grandiose and richly textured orchestrations of his music dramas (one can hardly listen to the radio or watch television without being assailed at some point by 'Ride of the Valkyries'!), it is not often recalled that he also wrote a number of substantial works for the piano. Indeed, so little-known are these today that one might be forgiven for assuming that the piano was not his natural medium. However, when the French Symbolist poet, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, visited Wagner and his wife Cosima at Triebschen, Switzerland where they were then living, the impression he carried away was quite different. According to Villiers, Wagner while seated at the piano became 'superhuman', and as the composer played and sang, the piano gained a soul of its own and Wagner’s performance would become so overpowering that his listeners had to beg him to stop: 'At the end of two hours we are really ill. It’s no longer a piano, or a voice, but a vision …'

Wagner’s earliest musical training was in fact as a pianist. While a schoolboy at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, he received piano lessons from his Latin master, Humann. Wagner was impatient with the set five-finger exercises, preferring to spend time playing the overture to Weber’s Freischütz and other such works by ear. In his late teens, he studied composition with Christian Theodor Weinlig, the conductor of the Thomanerchor in Leipzig. Weinlig made the young Wagner study counterpoint, and almost certainly sonata form as Wagner dedicated his first opus, a four-movement Piano Sonata, to his teacher. This was published in 1831, in the same year when Wagner composed the Fantasy in F sharp minor recorded here.

The original piano works
In Wagner’s Fantasy one can hear the influence of Beethoven, in particular the brooding style of such works as the 'Pathétique' and other piano sonatas from the great composer’s 'middle period'. Wagner had a life-long admiration of Beethoven, and became particularly noted for his interpretations as a conductor of Beethoven’s symphonies, most particularly the Fifth.

The Fantasy approximately outlines a three-movement sonata work, each movement preceded and linked by dramatic recitative passages. It opens with such a brooding, recitative-like section, which leads into an episode marked Un poco lento. More dramatic recitative introduces a bridge passage, with a passing resemblance to the famous Toccata attributed to Bach, which leads to an impetuous Allegro agitato. Another episode of recitative introduces a broad Adagio molto e cantabile, Beethoven-like in its noble melodiousness, with a hint of the 'Tempest' Sonata in some threatening rumbles in the bass. After some dramatic recollections of earlier sections of the Fantasy, a recapitulation of the opening Un poco lento returns the work to the lugubrious gloom from which it started.

The next original piano work represented on this album is an attractive 'Song without words', dated 1840. This short album leaf, dedicated to the painter and portraitist Ernst Benedikt Kietz, was Wagner’s last piano work until 1853, the year he composed Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W.—that is, for his muse Mathilde Wesendonk.

Wesendonk famously inspired Wagner to break off his work on the epic 'Ring' cycle to create his opera Tristan und Isolde. Before composing that seminal masterpiece, Wagner wrote several song settings of Wesendonk’s poetry, two of which he explicitly identified as “studies” for Tristan. A year after they first met in 1852, Wagner composed a one-movement Sonata in her honour; this was his first completed work since composing Lohengrin some six years earlier, and was written some months before he embarked on the first opera of the 'Ring' cycle, Das Rheingold. In the manuscript copy of the Sonata he gave Mathilde, he wrote the words 'Wisst ihr wie das wird?' ('Do you know what will become of this?'), the question posed by the Norns in the Ring cycle’s final opera, Götterdämmerung.

The remaining three original Wagner pieces on this album are effectively little gifts he composed in a spirit similar to that represented by the 'Lied ohne Worte' he gave to Kietz in 1840. One such gift was for Mathilde’s sister, Marie Luckenmeyer, who frequently visited Wagner in Zürich where he was living in exile during the 1850s to avoid imprisonment for his revolutionary activities. Wagner’s inscription on Züricher Vielliebchen-Walzer reads: 'Dedicated to Marie of Dusseldorf by the best dancer in Saxony, called Richard the Waltzmaker.'

A little less frivolous is In das Album der Fürstin Metternich, written in 1861 for the wife of the Austrian ambassador in Paris as a thank you for her intervention that allowed the performance of Tannhäuser at the Opéra to go ahead on 13 March of that year.

Wagner’s last piano work, Albumblatt für Frau Betty Schott dated 1875, was written for the widow of the publisher Franz Schott. One may hear several echoes in this of Die Meistersinger, and in the present recital by Llŷr Williams it makes an effective appetiser for the Prelude to Die Meistersinger.

The transcriptions
During much of the nineteenth century, it was a special event to hear substantial orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s works, let alone to hear any one of his operas entire. In the years before commercial recordings became widely available, let alone begin to do justice to Wagner’s colourful scores, much of his music was propagated through piano transcriptions, of which pride of place goes to those by Wagner’s staunch champion, the virtuoso pianist-composer Franz Liszt. Llŷr Williams has programmed several of the most attractive of these, which will be described here in order of their appearance.

'Entry of the Guests' (Einzug der Gäste auf der Wartburg) was originally the opening piece of Liszt’s Zwei Stücke aus „Tannhäuser“ und „Lohengrin“, first published in 1853. To make this piece an effective concert work, Liszt converted Wagner’s original music from Act II scene 4 of Tannhäuser into a ternary structure, opening with fanfares and the noble march theme to which the guests enter; the subsequent entry of the minstrels becomes a trio section, Liszt then concluding the work with a reprise of the march to which the guests had entered.

One of the most charming of Liszt’s transcriptions and elaborations on Wagner’s music is the 'Spinning Chorus' (Spinnerlied) from The Flying Dutchman, first published in 1862. Its particularly lovely ending is entirely of Liszt’s invention.

Liszt had a particularly close association with Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, conducting its very successful first production in Weimar in 1850 while Wagner was in exile in Switzerland. Liszt subsequently made his own piano arrangement of 'Elsa’s Bridal Procession', which was originally published as a companion to 'Entry of the Guests' from Tannhäuser. Here, though, is a very different procession: instead of fanfares, the simplest chords set the scene for a sweet, virginal theme (whose debt to Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more evident in the piano arrangement than in Wagner’s original wind-band-style scoring). In the original opera, the procession, before it can reach its full climax, is interrupted by the intervention of Elsa’s would-be nemesis, Ortrud; Liszt, however, rounds it off with a decrescendo and a lingering coda.

With 'Siegfried’s Rhine Journey' from Götterdämmerung, we reach the first of two transcriptions based on those originally made by the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. A great admirer of Wagner, Gould could not resist transcribing some of the German master’s grandest episodes to piano, using some recording studio trickery—or, as he called it, 'constructive cheating'—to enable him to encompass some of the rich textures beyond the reach of a mere two hands at the keyboard, over-dubbing himself to create in effect a four-hand transcription. (Llŷr Williams, as he explains in the introduction to this booklet, has reassigned some of the material between the two pianos 'in order to give an even more faithful account of what is going on'.) The baleful opening expresses the evil properties of the cursed ring; then, as dawn rises, we hear some of Wagner’s most ecstatic music to be found outside Tristan, expressing the love between Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the opera’s start (Williams here includes part of their love duet omitted by Gould in his transcription), made all the more poignant by Siegfried’s disastrous and unwitting betrayal of Brünnhilde before the opera’s end. The piece ends with the triumphant sound of Siegfried’s horn call as he rides off to the Rhine accompanied by some joyous musical gamboling, with just a hint of sombre apprehension before the excerpt’s triumphal final cadence.

It was Liszt who first coined the term 'Liebestod' by which Isolde’s final aria in Tristan und Isolde is now widely known. Wagner himself wrote a piano version of the ending of the opera’s prelude, a relatively restrained (one may say 'private') version which he sent to Mathilde Wesendonck with a letter in 1859. Here, though, is Liszt’s unrestrained and justly celebrated version.

Llŷr Williams has made his own transcription of various scenes from Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. In the opening 'Transformation Music', transcribing music which covers the scene change in Act I of the opera, its bell-like effects are particularly well suited to the piano’s sonorities; the more agonized and richly harmonized music heard at the heart of this section represents the agonies of the wounded knight, Amfortas. The movement ends with a passacaglia-like procession based on the tolling of bass bells. The heroic fanfares with which the following section starts represent our title hero; the Flower Maidens, sent to tempt him, are closely related to the oriental seductresses painted by such members of Russia’s Mighty Five as Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. In the Good Friday Music, originally heard in the opening scene of Act III, we hear the emotional anguish of Kundry, the cursed woman, transformed and exalted by this holy day, the music finally fading out to the tolling of the bass bells first heard in the 'Transformation Music'.

Liszt’s 'Santo spirito cavaliere' from Rienzi is one of his most free treatments of Wagner, possibly presenting a musical portrait of the opera’s hero. Its title is after the theme heard in the finale of Act III, followed by the theme from the opera’s best known aria, Rienzi’s Prayer from Act V (a theme which also features in the opera’s overture). Dramatic contrast is then offered by the 'call to arms' theme taken from the opening of Act I.

When it came to Wagner’s 'Ring' cycle, Liszt was rather more restrained, possibly because so much of the opera was effectively transcribed for piano by his student, the Polish virtuoso Carl Tausig. Liszt’s sole contribution to the repertoire of piano works based on the 'Ring' tetralogy is his portrait of the castle of the gods, Valhalla, based primarily on the transition between the first two scenes of Rheingold and Wotan’s hymn to their newly built abode.

Finally, rounding off Llŷr Williams’s recital, is another Glenn Gould transcription, this time of Wagner’s contrapuntal tour de force, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner himself presented this Prelude as a self-standing work some six years before the first production of the complete opera, and it has been a popular part of the orchestral repertory ever since: but such is the richness of its contrapuntal detail—as lightly carried as is the contrapuntal feat of the finale of Mozart’s 'Jupiter' Symphony—that it is an understandably rare treat to hear it performed as here in a piano arrangement, with a little help from what Gould calls 'constructive cheating'!

Daniel Jaffé © 2014

My love affair with the music of Wagner began when at age 10 when I was given the Solti recording of the 'Ring' cycle as a Christmas present. Shortly afterwards I was bashing through the major music dramas at the piano, using vocal scores acquired from our local library.

By far the most frequently played bit of Wagner in piano recitals is Liszt’s transcription of 'Isolde’s Liebestod' from Tristan, a near-miraculous conjuring up of Wagner’s glowing orchestration with just ten fingers. The popularity of this piece, however, should not blind us to the quality of some of his other realizations such as 'Entry of the Guests' from Tannhäuser where Liszt gets to the heart of this particular operatic scene.

It was for a recital at London’s Kings Place to celebrate the bicentenary in 2013 that the Wagner scholar Barry Millington suggested that I should combine the Liszt transcriptions with some original piano music by Wagner. I have to confess that my initial reaction was (as it is with many musicians): 'Did he write piano music?' However there is more than two hours’ worth of music, much of it suggestive of the voice and the orchestra. One can hear echoes of certain phrases from the operas in the Sonate für Mathilde Wesendonck. Although the Fantasy in F sharp minor is a bit long-winded in places, the cyclical return of the sombre opening following the intervening movements makes for a remarkably moving, pessimistic conclusion. This is especially remarkable when one considers that it was written at the tender age of 19 and that Wagner is not usually thought of as an early starter.

The later music dramas are not well-represented in Liszt’s transcriptions with their increasing density of orchestral polyphony evidently puzzling for him. Glenn Gould’s solution in 1973 was to record the Meistersinger Prelude and 'Siegfried’s Rhine Journey' from Götterdämmerung with an overdubbed second piano part, thus giving an almost complete realization of all the orchestral voices on the keyboard. In the Götterdämmerung, I have taken the liberty of re- allocating some of the material between the two pianos in order to give an even more faithful account of what is going on, as well as interpolating a section from the mountain-top duet.

It was my excellent producer, Judy Sherman, who finally persuaded me to transcribe something from Parsifal, as this was the obvious missing link in this album. Trying to reduce Parsifal to twenty minutes seems a daunting enough task, but a good way in seemed to be the Act I 'Transformation Music' with its bells, as there is a whole history of the piano being made to emulate bell sounds. Part of the 'Flower Maidens' scene from Act II and the 'Good Friday Music' from Act III are then included before the bells return at the end, reminding us that much of Wagner’s music is cyclical.

Llyr Williams © 2014

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