I suspect that not many readers need to be reminded that Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago today, May 22. There have been a variety of celebratory activities, one of the most interesting being that the Met Opera Radio channel on SiriusXM Satellite Radio has decided to devote the entire week to recordings of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts of complete Wagner operas, the earliest dating from 1936 and the most recent being last February’s broadcast of Parsifal. However, Wagner’s portfolio included more than opera; and, at the end of last month, Dynamic released a two-CD set of his complete piano works performed by Dario Bonuccelli.
Clearly, Wagner was not as prolific in composing for piano as he was in composing opera; but this release provides the opportunity to listen to his working with shorter durational scales. It is also worth noting that several of the selections on this recording are not included in the 1981 Schott “complete” edition of Wagner’s piano works. The most interesting of these additions would be the first selection, which is the only arrangement of material from his operas. Entitled “Schluss zum Vorspiel von Tristan und Isolde” (conclusion from the prelude for Tristan und Isolde), this short (less than five minutes) fantasia actually embellishes the content specified in the title with a few hints of the Liebestod (Isolde’s final “love-death” aria).
Taken as a whole, this collection does not even amount to two and a half hours of music. However, the prevailing rhetoric is that of a salon setting, directed more at entertaining diversion than at the worldviews of intense narrative. With the exception of the famous “Tristan chord,” the harmonic language never gets particularly adventurous; and the only evidence of counterpoint as a primary guiding force can be found in the final track, the opening measures of a fugue that works its way up to an intermediate cadence, after which Wagner seems to have called it quits.
On a longer scale of duration, there are three compositions lasting about half an hour, two sonatas, the earlier in four movements and the later in three, and a fantasia. These all seem to be based on models, possibly drawing on works by Ludwig van Beethoven. There is also a single sonata movement composed for Mathilde Wesendonck, which probably has the richest dramatic overtones among the selections in this set.
This collection, whose entire duration is less than that of most of Wagner’s operas, may not be as absorbing as those operas; but it still demonstrates that there is more to Wagner’s personality than the traits that his operas revealed.