Wagnerian Piano

(This is a companion post to the DTM interview with Alex Ross, who published Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music in 2020.)

Richard Wagner wrote little for solo piano, and none of it is in the active repertoire. However, many virtuoso piano transcriptions from Wagner’s operas are enjoyable and educational. This tradition began with a major influence on Wagner (and eventually a father-in-law), Franz Liszt. The Liszt transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod was a best-seller in the 19th-century.

(A piano reduction of the companion piece, the Tristan Prelude, with its famous “Tristan chord,” has been found in many harmony books after 1865. Since the prelude is not challenging technically and doesn’t have an ending, it’s never been as popular on the piano concert stage as the Liebestod — although many orchestral concerts have elided the Prelude to the Liebestod.)

In chronological order, a compendium of famous pianists offering the impossible in the name of Richard Wagner.

Ride of the Valkyries is one of the most famous Wagner tunes. (Ross’s Wagnerism goes into wonderful detail about the Ride’s cinematic history, including Birth of a Nation and Apocalypse Now.) All the accurate transcriptions of this quintessentially orchestral texture are essentially unplayable by mortal pianists. Olga Samaroff tosses off the Ernest Hutcheson arrangement in a single take in 1922.

For some, Josef Hofmann was one of the greatest concert pianists of all time. Louis Brassin’s arrangement of Magic Fire Music gives ample room for one of Hofmann’s signature effects, where a tune trumpets out fortissimo against a busy backdrop. 1923.

Ross includes a section on “Black Wagner.” Donald Lambert made an astonishing Harlem stride rendition of the Pilgrim’s Chorus in 1941.

One of the more familiar Liszt transcriptions is of Overture to Tannhäuser. How wonderful to have precious video of the great Benno Moiseiwitsch playing the whole thing down from top to bottom. Until relatively recently, both pianist and audience accepted many wrong notes in a big virtuoso work. Moiseiwitsch has astounding pianistic control, but he doesn’t mind a certain amount of smudging while embroiled in the fervent act of performance. To me, this imperfection is ideal. 1954.

Glenn Gould was a dedicated Wagnerite. As far as I know, the long elusive chamber work Siegfried Idyll was untouched by pianists until Gould recorded a mesmerizing rendition in 1973. It’s on the slow side, but Gould’s intensity of purpose pays off.

Then there is Nyiregyházi, a mysterious figure in the annals of piano. At times he played incredibly loudly, at other times incredibly slowly. The Wikipedia entry is worth reading. At any rate, Nyiregyházi’s own paraphrase on Rienzi and Lohengrin recorded in 1978 takes some time to get going — but his pure conviction makes for an unforgettable performance.

Sviatoslav Richter was another dedicated Wagnerite, and late in life would encore with the tiny Schmachtend, which may be Wagner’s best “straight” piano piece overall. The harmonies foreshadow Thelonious Monk.

Wagner’s manuscript

Nobody captured the imagination of the general public quite like Vladimir Horowitz. Characteristically, the maestro got the perfect valediction, recording a hair-raising Isolde’s Liebestod just a few days before passing away in 1989. (Nyíregyházi also recorded a truly over the top Liebestod.)

In the modern era, new forms of Wagner at the piano still arrive. Nikolaj Luganskij has made a few transcriptions, including a darkly charismatic Siegfried Funeral March.

In Wagnerism, Ross writes of the word, “Wagnerian”:

…Eventually, it became a synonym for grandiose, bombastic, overbearing, or, simply, very long. Things that have been described as Wagnerian include the film Fight Club; the sound of ice breaking; the All-Ireland Gaelic football championship of 1956; the feud between Boeing and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company over a $35 billion tanker deal; servings of sausage and schnitzel in German-speaking Switzerland; the roar of a Lamborghini V10; and the monsoon in Mumbai.

What are the piano sonatas that could be described as “Wagnerian?”

1853 saw two of the best. Liszt’s Sonata is epic and mono-thematic, Brahms’s Third Sonata in F minor is unusually expansive in five movements. Both have harmonic sequences with modal/chromatic Wagnerian-chorale logic. (This was the year Wagner got going on the Ring while in exile in Switzerland.)

1857 was also a good year for massive sonatas, Alkan’s masterful Symphony for Solo Piano and Julius Reubke’s long and difficult Sonata in B-flat minor.

Grieg was 22 in 1865 when he published his somewhat obscure E minor Sonata. Not all that Wagnerian — unless you compare it to the much more famous Grieg Lyric Pieces, in which case it totally is.

In 1882, the youthful Richard Strauss finished his not entirely successful B-minor Sonata, which often scans like a reduction of a Wagner overture. (This is a convenient point to note that neither Bruckner nor Mahler wrote any piano sonatas.)

The work that may sound most like “Wagner at the piano” is the first movement of Guillaume Lekeu’s discursive Sonata from 1891.

Paul Dukas reviewed a performance of the Ring conducted by Mahler in 1892. His epic Sonata in E-flat minor from 1900 has beautiful ideas and a unique style.

There are many large-scale Russian sonatas from a certain tradition: Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, even the student work of Stravinsky in F-sharp minor. However, while certainly symphonic in texture, they are all structurally quite neat and precise. The most Wagnerian Russian sonata is obviously the rhapsodic Scriabin no. 4, which seems to take over just where the Tristan prelude left off. Composed in 1904.

In 1910 or 1911, Godowsky finished his Piano Sonata, one of the longest in the literature, clocking in at 45-60 minutes depending on the pianist. In five beautiful Wagnerian movements.

Also to be considered: sonatas by d’Albert, Bax, John Powell (“Sonata Teutonica”), Gade, Korngold, Berg…surely others…”The Alcotts” from Ives’s Concord Sonata includes a brief quote from the Lohengrin Bridal March…

One of the most thoroughly Wagnerian piano pieces in the active repertoire is not a sonata, but must be mentioned here nonetheless. The Prelude, Chorale and Fugue by César Franck (1884) embodies “Parsifal at the piano.”

DTM: Interview with Alex Ross.