May 23, 2013
(++++) KEYBOARD COMPETITION
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Dario Bonuccelli, piano. Dynamic. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Pier Paolo Vincenzi, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
It is scarcely a surprise that the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth has led to an upsurge in recordings of his works, including consideration or reconsideration of elements of Wagner’s music to which attention is rarely paid – such as his forays into occasional music and the symphony, and his earliest operas. Thus, the appearance on CD of Wagner’s piano music is only to be expected. But the appearance of two nearly simultaneous releases of his complete piano works – both by young Italian pianists – is something of a surprise, and as it turns out, a very pleasant one.
Both Dario Bonuccelli (born 1985) and Pier Paolo Vincenzi (born 1980) turn out to have plenty of technique and a sound stylistic understanding of this music. And the performances by both show the same thing: although Wagner wrote two large-scale piano sonatas and a Fantasia of similar extent (it lasts half an hour), it is in his smaller-scale works that more-personal elements of the composer come through. A few of these smaller pieces are salon music or thank-you notes to patrons, but several – especially those dedicated to or intended for Mathilde Wesendonck, one of the great loves of Wagner’s life and the inspiration for some of his greatest works (including Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) – display aspects of Wagner’s personality in ways that are both revelatory and charming.
There turns out to be no definitive reason to opt for one of these two-CD sets over the other. Bonuccelli’s readings tend to be slightly more dramatic than Vincenzi’s and are often, although not always, somewhat slower and more stately. Vincenzi’s have greater transparency and often feature a pleasantly light touch that is in keeping with the music but is not something one would usually associate with Wagner. Individual works may go one way or the other: Bonuccelli has a stronger grasp of the dramatic portions of the Fantasia, for example, but Vincenzi does a better job with a Polonaise in which Bonuccelli can be annoyingly heard tapping his foot throughout – a habit he also has elsewhere, but thankfully much less intrusively. Still, neither performer is consistently stronger than the other. The sound quality of the pianos does differ: Vincenzi plays a clear-sounding Fazioli, while Bonuccelli’s instrument, which is not identified, has a darker, richer tone. The sequence of works differs between the two sets, but not in a way that favors one over the other. The releases do handle the fugue that Wagner wrote for his Große Sonate, Op. 4, but then dropped, differently: Bonuccelli offers it as a separate piece, a sort of appendix, while Vincenzi plays the entire third movement of the sonata two ways – once with the fugue and once without it. The sound quality of the CDs is comparable, despite the fact that the Dynamic set costs nearly twice as much as the Brilliant Classics one – perhaps a deciding factor for some listeners. The fact is that no one will go wrong with either of these releases.
But why own either one? The reason, of course, is the music; and that takes us back to what Wagner’s output for the piano shows about the composer. Wagner was not a very good pianist, a fact that is easy to forget in light of Liszt’s pianistic brilliance in his many Wagner transcriptions and arrangements. But Wagner was quite capable of creating solid, large-scale sonatas, including a four-movement one in B-flat in 1831 and the three-movement Große Sonate in A a year later. Both are derivative – the former has some of the spirit of Haydn and Mozart; the latter contains echoes of late Beethoven, and its finale sounds a great deal like Weber – but both are well-constructed and effective in their own ways. The Fantasia, like the first sonata, dates to 1831, and Wagner seems more comfortable with its freer form than with the restrictions inherent in sonata construction – the work’s alternation of recitative-like and dramatic passages is particularly effective. Yet it is the much shorter, one-movement Wesendonck sonata, with the very personal title Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W., that is Wagner’s most effective extended piano work, with a winning mixture of emotion and structural design that incorporates references both to Tannhäuser and to Tristan.
Wagner’s remaining, shorter piano works are sometimes out-and-out trifles – one is a 40-second-long polka, for example, and another is a polonaise for piano four hands that ups the number of Italian pianists in these releases to four (Bonuccelli is joined by Marco Vincenzi – presumably no relation to Pier Paolo Vincenzi, who is joined by Federica Ferrati). But pleasantries abound in the shorter works, and so does some profundity, as in Schluß zum Vorspiel von Tristan und Isolde, another piece Wagner wrote for and dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck. And one of the intriguing differences between these two recordings has to do with a minute-and-a-half piece simply called Elegie – a work whose intensity and harmonic boldness belie its length. The booklet notes to the Bonuccelli release give the work’s date as 1881, which would make it Wagner’s last piece; but those to Vincenzi’s recording, which are by the pianist himself, give the date of the Elegie as 1859 and say it “was for a long time erroneously thought to be Wagner’s last composition.” Without getting into the arguments about this piece’s provenance, it is worth noting that in this case, the performances by Bonuccelli and Vincenzi are exactly the same length – evidence, perhaps, that the communicative power of Wagner’s piano music is more important than academic and musicological discussions of the ways in which these pieces fit within the composer’s life and oeuvre.