As I observed in my preview piece, the 2013 Festival of the American Liszt Society, currently hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is entitled Franz Liszt: Anniversaries and Connections. This is the bicentennial year of three of Liszt’s contemporaries, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Giuseppe Verdi, and Richard Wagner, and the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer and conductor Felix Weingartner. At last night’s Gala Piano Concert, the focus was on Wagner with performances of eleven paraphrases and transcriptions of music from eight major Wagner operas.
This covered most, but not all, of the fifteen selections included in the Dover Complete Piano Transcriptions from Wagner’s Operas volume (which was first published by the American Liszt Society). It is important to note that Liszt had a comprehensive knowledge of the full scope of the Wagner operatic canon, extending all the way from Rienzi to Parsifal. He admired Wagner greatly, and applied much of his own prestige to the promotion of interest in Wagner’s music.
The selections performed last night were composed between 1848 and 1882, all written after Liszt retired from his concert career in 1847. However, while Liszt may have retired as a showman, there is a generous supply of ballyhoo in these compositions, particularly the paraphrases, which, by definition, allowed Liszt the liberty to depart from the letter of the text. Nevertheless, when we consider the complexity of Wagner’s writing for full orchestra, supplemented by an equally full chorus and any number of solo voices, we must recognize that both transcribing and paraphrasing his music pose major challenges. Indeed, the transcription of the “Entrance of the Guests” from Tannhäuser was complex enough in its own right to be rearranged for eight hands on two pianos by someone identified only as “Fr. Hermann” in the catalogs.
When properly executed, both transcription and paraphrase can provide useful insights, identifying subtle details of logic or rhetoric that may be lost in the overall wash of orchestral complexity. Thus, over the course of last night, the attentive listener could detect certain Wagnerian tropes that would migrate from one opera to another, often lost in the context of any single opera. On the other hand, Wagner’s rhetoric is at its most powerful when he exercises meticulous control over the full dynamic range of his instrumental and vocal resources; and the hard truth is that no piano can ever be a match for that dynamic range.
Thus, what Liszt provides is basically a survey of some of the most familiar themes; and, in the paraphrases, those themes are then couched in an abundance of pianistic embellishment. When this works at all (and it often does), it tends to work best in small doses. A full evening of these selections tends to draw the mind to their shortcomings rather than their virtues; and that is unfortunate for Wagner, Liszt, and the many pianists who participated in last night’s program.
Nevertheless, as is often the case, one selection rose above the prevailing too-much-of-a-good-thing ambiance of last night’s program. Of all the participants, Eugene Alcalay performed with the most control of dynamic range in his interpretation of the “Isolde’s Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. He honored Wagner’s original arc of a gradual crescendo building to the climax of Isolde’s last gasp and then falling back into a decrescendo that practically evaporates in the final measures. This emerged as Liszt’s most successful effort to transcribe the dramatic qualities of Wagner’s command of dynamics and was, without a doubt, the most memorable contribution to last night’s program.