Editor's note: In Auxiliary Input, which debuted in February, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.
For this second edition, Anderson explores two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra, who holds piano performance degrees from Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas.
UPDATE: We have added reviews of two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz. He will perform, along with pianist Mary Dilbern, on March 25 at the University of Texas at Dallas. More info can be found here.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com.
Wagner: Transcribed for Solo Piano by August Stradal, Volumes One and Two
Juan Guillermo Vizcarra, Piano
When you’re a composer and you really like someone else’s opera, it’s fun—sometimes profitable, even—to turn bits of that opera into a piano piece that has your stamp on it. Franz Liszt did a lot of this. His Fantasy on Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” is the reason I like opera at all. And music history is littered with tales of piano slams between, say, Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, where they’d each take part of an opera and work piano magic on it.
The thing is, Liszt was a great composer and a great pianist; Thalberg was a great pianist and that’s it. So even when Thalberg came out as the favorite, Liszt probably should have. And there have been a hundred other virtuoso-transcribers, including a guy named August Stradal. He was great pianist and a great admirer of Liszt, and devoted as well to Wagner, or at least to his music.
Which brings us to two discs from Toccata Classics featuring pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra playing some of Stradal’s transcriptions of Wagner’s vocal music, mostly from his operas (buy them here and here). This was my first exposure to Vizcarra, a young Peruvian pianist whose educational pursuits brought him to Texas Christian University, where he earned an Artist’s Diploma and eventually a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance, followed by a doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance from the University of North Texas. It was also my introduction to the music of Mr. Stradal (Wagner I had heard of).
This is an important pair of discs for several reasons: they show off Vizcarra’s talents, and all indications are that if the music required more of him, he’d be up to it; they also give us lots of angles on Stradal’s talents as an arranger/composer, not all of which are overwhelmingly positive; and they give us new angles on Wagner’s music. That’s always welcome, even if those angles aren’t always positive, either.
Disc One has Vizcarra performing six excerpts from three of the operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle—including the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre and “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried—as well as his so-called “Wesendonck-Lieder,” five settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck for voice and piano. Disc Two has extended—and I use the word advisedly—sections from two Ring operas and from Tristan and Isolde, as well as the Good Friday music from Parsifal; there’s also an extended—advisedly, again—“Free Fantasy” on music from Lohengrin.
Vizcarra’s pianistic talent is the real star of these discs. Some of the transcriptions feature so many intertwining strands of music—one, sometimes two of these were originally vocal lines—that differentiating the strands would hardly seem possible for a performer. Vizcarra does better than that, however. By his own admission, he added some vocal lines to the texture that Stradal left out, an omission surely aimed at making the arrangement more accessible to the ordinary prize-winning virtuoso.
Mr. Vizcarra is hardly your ordinary prize-winning pianist, though, and his having the confidence to take some liberties with Stradal’s musical text (especially when we’re talking about liberties that testify to Vizcarra’s own musical subtlety) mark him as a performer we should keep on the lookout for, especially since those liberties often make Stradal the more prominent beneficiary. And if I ever get a chance to ask him, I’ll try to find out if those glissandos in Siegfried’s Funeral March are Stradal’s or his.
I suspect they’re Vizcarra’s. Many of the more extended (there’s that word again) sections adhere a little too closely to Wagner’s original. Liszt might have left some things out, repeated some of the big tunes (like “Siegmund’s Love Song” from Act I of Die Die Walküre), and generally kept things moving along. After all, much of the music in these extended parts consists of underscoring speeches like Wotan’s narration of the entire history of the Wolsungs; material used for underscoring doesn’t often wear well when the voices are taken out. Furthermore, Stradal too often settles for taking care of all the notes that Wagner has provided, simply making sure they’re all accounted for, and too often he relies on octaves to communicate power and depth.
But then there are excerpts like “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is probably all Stradal, except for what’s Wagner, and except for Vizcarra’s trademark, an almost mechanical strength and precision. I realize, though, that without that “almost,” it would sound like a veiled complaint. Perhaps I should just settle for the word “superhuman.” At any rate, this Ride would make a fantastic encore number for any pianist that could handle it.
And I can’t let go of this review without thanking Toccata Classics, Mr. Vizcarra, August Stradal and Wagner for the transcription of the Wesendonck songs (from Disc One), and especially for the third song of the five, “Im Treibhaus” (“In the Greenhouse”). It was not until I heard Vizcarra’s extraordinarily sensitive recording of this song that I realized what I was listening to: Wagner reused it as the music for the Prelude to Act III of Tristan and Isolde (I think everyone knew that but me), and it’s widely regarded—by me, at least—as the saddest music ever written. I’ve often wondered why I had never heard a piano arrangement of it, and now I know why: Wagner did it. And it makes me anxious to see what else Vizcarra has up his very talented sleeve.
Gabriel Fauré: Songs for Bass Voice and Piano
Jared Schwartz, Bass, and Roy Howat, Piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0268
Released Sept. 4, 2015
Ange Flégier: Mélodies for Bass Voice and Piano
Jared Schwartz, Bass, and Mary Dibbern, Piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0306
Released Sept. 29 2016
In what the cover photos seem to promote as The Battle of the Crazy 19th-Century Moustaches, Toccata Classics has given us two discs of vocal music with interesting similarities and differences. First, the similarities: both feature bass Jared Schwartz, whom you may know from the Fort Worth Symphony’s 2015 performance of Handel’s Messiah; both feature French composers of approximately the same era; and both were recorded in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral at 5100 Ross Avenue in Dallas, on the same piano, with the same audio engineer and crew. And the differences: one was recorded in April 2016; the other in February of 2015. One features Scottish pianist and scholar Roy Howat; the other, American pianist Mary Dibbern—author, scholar, teacher and Director of Education and Family Programs with the Dallas Opera One features music written by one of the best-known composers of French melodies; the other, songs by a virtual unknown nowadays, but who was afforded somewhat higher respect at the height of his career. Somewhat.
Many of these factors are relevant, but there’s one more that I haven’t mentioned: many of the Flégier works were intended for low voice, whereas Fauré’s songs are generally not entrusted to basses. That’s a foregone conclusion that Mr. Schwartz has heard before, though. He even gives us an essay in the disc’s accompanying booklet defending the decision to perform them. And as Schwartz and Howat demonstrate, the best defense is a good performance, even if it risks offending an occasional sensibility.
That’s just what they give us—strong performance, I mean. Selections from the Fauré catalogue were clearly the result of thorough consideration of what the necessary transposition would do to the song, particularly the relationship of the voice and the accompaniment. And I can’t find any reason to fault any of the choices. Sung by a bass, these songs achieve levels of poignancy (as in “L’absent”), irony (“Mandoline”), and darkness (“Prison”) that they may have sacrificed to the familiarity that higher registers have afforded them. So it seems to me that a bass is the very thing that Fauré’s mélodies need.
The translations that Schwartz and Dibbern provide in the booklet are sensitive, accurate and occasionally even hilarious (“Avril est de retour” becomes “April is back at it”: perfect!). Plus, there are two numbers—one, the über-familiar “Après un rêve”—that are recorded here for the first time with their poetry in the original Tuscan dialect, an option restored to performers via Mr. Howat’s new edition of Fauré’s music. He and Mr. Schwartz have given us a new look at some music that we already knew was great; and with Schwartz’s strength, sensitivity, flexibility and wide range—of dynamics, expression, and volume, to say nothing of…well, range—it’s almost like hearing these works for the first time again.
On the other hand, in the case of the Ange Flégier offering, Schwartz and Dibbern provide a recording that is exactly like hearing these works for the first time, because (for me, at least) that’s just what it is—which leads me to consider a further contrast between the two albums.
Perhaps it has something to do with the albums’ two different accompanists; it could be the 14 months that separate the recording dates; maybe the pews in the church had been reupholstered in the meantime; it might even be something intrinsic to the music. Whatever the case, there’s an expressive restraint on the Fauré that’s absent on the Flégier. These works, devoid of any Fauré performance-convention baggage (bagages?), invite Mr. Schwartz to give free rein to his interpretive talents, even to exaggerate an occasional emotional moment. The Fauré album doesn’t suffer at all in this comparison, but the Flégier definitely shines.
Funny thing is, I don’t hear the restraint when listening to the Fauré album on its own. I wasn’t kidding about Schwartz’s strength, sensitivity, and so forth, but I do hear, in the Flégier performances, a hugely talented singer really cutting loose.
It will be interesting to see how the differences carry forward into the recital Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Dibbern will be delivering on March 25, which will include works by both these composers (and some pieces by someone named Franz Liszt). And, since Mr. Howat will not be reprising his collaborative role on the Fauré, we should also look forward to hearing Mary Dibbern’s handling of Fauré’s accompaniments. She does so well with Flégier’s heart-on-the-sleeve writing that the prospect of hearing her approach to the subtleties of Fauré is particularly exciting.
These two albums show us two distinct sides of the French 19th-century vocal repertoire, and either works nicely on its own. But together, they add up to a good deal more than the sum of their parts.
» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.
» Auxiliary Input will appear on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.