On Wagner’s Birthday – Liebestod – from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner/Liszt

Following  April 23rd’s post, written on the joint birthdays of Prokofiev and Shakespeare, today’s post is written on Richard Wagner’s birthday, and the piece is the Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, transcribed for the piano by Liszt. A double dose of the Romantic piano, both in subject matter and musical style, as the grieving but rapturous Isolde dies by the body of her beloved Tristan at the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, in a blaze of chromatic harmony.

Liszt was an adept transcriber of other people’s music, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique  in 1833 after its premiere in Paris, all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Schubert songs, Bach cantata movements, instrumental pieces and countless operatic themes. Operatic fantasies and paraphrases tended to include original material as well as the opera’s best-known  melodies, such as those found in the Rigoletto Paraphrase.But some transcriptions were almost verbatim adaptations for piano, and this is one of them.

Liszt was a skilled orchestrator and conductor himself, honing his skills while     Kappellmeister at the court of  Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar, from 1848-1861. Not only that, but Liszt championed the music of Wagner, conducting numerous operatic performances; he knew Wagner’s style from the perspective of the composer’s orchestral soundworld.

In the Liebestod transcription, Liszt translates Wagner’s shimmering strings and Isolde’s aria into quiet tremolandi for piano accompanying the soprano’s line, which is projected with a cantabile, singing touch amidst a swirling texture of quasi-polyphonic complexity. There are important counter-melodies to project, and chords to be voiced judiciously. The music gradually builds in a series of ever-impassioned sequences until a shattering, ecstatic climax engulfs us all, both the performer and audience. As a solo pianist confined to ten fingers, one can almost feel Liszt’s frustration as he strives to get the maximum sound from the instrument, with pounded chords in both hands trying desperately to emulate the sound of a huge orchestra playing at full strength. Slowly and gradually the music subsides into blissful exaltation as Isolde slips away to join her lover in death.

Dare I point out, dear Liszt, that the final D sharp of the oboes in the penultimate bar really should be heard as a tie with all other instruments lifting briefly, as per the orchestral score? Try releasing all notes except a treble clef D sharp momentarily in between the final two bars, re-pedal, then play the last chord. Just a thought.

Two performances to enjoy – Horowitz, and then Hamelin, where the score can be followed.

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