John O’Donnell (harpsichord)
MELBA 301143 TPT: 79’48”
Liszt Wagner Paraphrases
Asher Fisch (piano)
MELBA 301141 TPT: 67’07”
reviewed by Neville Cohn
How much we take photocopying machines for granted nowadays. But I’m old enough to recall vividly as a child in the 1940s (when photocopiers were in their infancy and certainly not standard equipment in business offices), painstakingly copying out piano pieces note for note from my teacher’s music books out of print or unavailable due to wartime restrictions. And if, say, in an insurance office, copies of letters were needed, they had to be typed by an employee in the typing pool, a time- consuming occupation.
What has this, you’ll be wondering, to do with the music of Georg Bohm and the generous and welcome selection from his harpsichord output on a recent MELBA release? It seems that what little we have of Bohm’s music is largely, though not entirely, due to the efforts of the then-15-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach who studied with Bohm at the time and, crucially, and painstakingly, made copies of some of his teacher’s compositions which he handed round to members of the larger Bach family. Without these, Bohm might, at best, have been little more than a footnote to music history.
And what a splendid performance we have courtesy of John O’Donnell, a musician whose playing has the unmistakable stamp of authority. Much of the performance on disc is informed by a quite captivating joie de vivre – and the extraordinary skilled presentation, with notes clothed in golden tone and informed by an authoritative confidence, makes this CD quite exceptional. Bravo!
This compilation is yet another instance of the imaginative resourcefulness that is a hallmark of the Melba label. As I have mentioned before a number of times – but it certainly warrants reiteration – there is much more to a Melba CD than the disc itself. Invariably, there are fascinating liner notes and a finely designed CD container. This is particularly so here.
Melba’s preparedness, music-wise, to embrace the novel, the forgotten and the challenging makes this label – small in relation to the international big names – a giant insofar as courage and enterprise are concerned. At every level, this product is a joy. The playing has the stamp of authority; it glows with golden tone and the stamp of authority. Highly recommended for anyone interested in baroque harpsichord playing at an august level.
Wagner was a man of many parts: embezzler, anti-Semite, anarchist, serial adulterer and a person of incorrigible vanity. He was also a genius. His cause has not been helped by being Hitler’s favourite composer. The vile leader of the Third Reich also possessed a number of Wagner’s original opera scores which he cherished.
Asher Fisch needs little introduction although his primary claim to fame is as conductor rather than pianist. He has also been at the forefront of events in presiding over the Wagner Ring cycle in Adelaide, the recordings of which deservedly garnered high praise internationally.
In the late nineteenth century, without radio or recordings, the chances of encountering ‘live’ performances of a Wagner opera were very few and limited to those in cities boasting an opera company. But, through the great skill of Liszt (among others), keyboard paraphrases of scenes and/or arias became very popular at recitals and soirees.
In recent months, a tsunami of CDs devoted to Wagner’s operas has almost overwhelmed the music scene. A few are disappointing and will sink without trace, some will keep afloat – and a significant few are riding the crest of the wave.
Fisch’s recording of Liszt/Wagner paraphrases certainly belongs to the last mentioned category. It’s fascinating fare presented with high musical intelligence and beautifully recorded. I especially admired the skill brought to bear on the Spinning Chorus from The Flying Dutchman, the whirring figurations beautifully managed – and the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhauser is no less meaningful. Its broadly paced measures and, where required, introspective moments as well as climactic episodes are the acme of refined taste. So, too, is Entry of the Guests; I’ve returned to Asch’s account of it a number of times – it’s a consummately fine offering.
Wagner wrote almost nothing for piano solo but here are three rarities, miniatures written as gifts for friends. They amount to very little. They are rather introspective little pieces with a faded charm which, without the magic of Wagner’s name attached to them, would long ago have disappeared into music history’s wastepaper basket.