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Wagner – His Contemporaries and Followers

by Heather Leviston


Not everybody who attended “Wagner – his Contemporaries and Followers” came just to hear further insights into Wagner’s world; the talents of young pianist Alex Raineri are also attracting increasing attention and this program provided another opportunity to appreciate them.

Raineri’s collaboration with divers musicians for the series of concerts at the Australian National Academy of Music this year demonstrated that he is a curator and pianist of imagination and daring. In the final concert his interest in Schoenberg resulted in a memorable performance of Pierrot Lunaire featuring the excellent young soprano, Tabatha McFadyen. Although there was no Schoenberg played in this Wagner recital, Schoenberg’s admiration for Wagner could have earned him a place beside the admirers who were represented: Mendelssohn, Liszt, Berg and Scriabin.

Before the concert proper, Wagner scholar and speaker Peter Bassett asked the audience to refrain from applauding until the end. This gave the performance more focussed continuity even though you could hear efforts at self-restraint in the murmurs of approval that greeted some pieces, especially Liszt’s “Paraphrase of the close of Tristan und Isolde, with introduction”.

Playing from memory and bathed in a soft vermillion glow, Raineri began the program with Wagner’s In das Album der Fürstin M. A short piece of gentle, song-like melody, it was written as a gesture of thanks to Princess Metternich for her support. It set a scene of friendly intimacy for Peter Bassett’s illuminating commentary on Wagner’s world. It was a world that did not always look favourably upon Wagner, especially in Paris, where he would have valued the support of wealthy patrons such as the Princess.

As Bassett read extracts from letters, memoirs, poems and Wagner’s autobiography, historical and personal details were interwoven to create a portrait of a flawed man whose powerful emotions were integral to his musical genius. Although some saw Mendelssohn as superficial in comparison with Wagner, Raineri’s virtuosic playing of the former’s Variations Sérieuses demonstrated why Wagner admired his work.

At the core of Wagner’s life and musical creativity was his artistic and personal friendship with Liszt, a relationship that Bassett explored by highlighting crucial aspects. Both composers had important romantic relationships with married women, but it was Wagner’s eventual marriage to Liszt’s illegitimate daughter Cosima that led to estrangement. The rupture lasted eleven years despite the fact that Wagner implored Liszt to “come to yourself” in a letter that described them as so close as to be one person. In addition to capturing the surging emotion of the Liebestod piano transcription, Raineri played Liszt’s Sposalizio from his Years of Pilgrimage. Sensitive to the architecture of the piece, he played the initial rippling melodic line with clarity and warmth, built to a crashing climax that tested the piano’s limits and finished with a considered ending of quiet descending phrases.

The influence of Tristan und Isolde was also heard in Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 and Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 4. Their enthusiasm for Wagner’s music may be somewhat unexpected but, like Schoenberg, they found inspiration in his unorthodox approach to music and life. Bassett pointed to a romantic parallel in their lives since Berg too had fallen passionately in love with the married Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Again, it was difficult to resist the impulse to applaud after Raineri’s persuasive account of Berg’s fractured re-making of a work that seems to echo Wagner’s emotional trajectory.

Prior to the final work in this recital/lecture, Bassett read from Wagner’s autobiography and gave an amusing and at times a less than complimentary account of Wagner’s visit to Moscow and St Petersburg, where the Russians appeared to be much more impressed by this egocentric genius than people in other European cities. Even Tolstoy was a fan.

After comparing a much more grounded Wagner with the alarmingly eccentric Scriabin, who declared, “I am God”, Bassett concluded his talk with a poem by Scriabin. His Sonata follows the form of the poem and is a work seeking to evoke flight, ecstasy and the cosmos. How Wagnerian.

Wagnerphiles in the audience unable to head for Hobart to hear Stuart Skelton and the wondrous Nina Stemme in the flesh as Tristan and Isolde would have found consolation in this recital. With a running time of a mere eighty minutes, it was a remarkably informative and musically satisfying overview of Wagner’s world and heritage.


Heather Leviston attended the performance of Wagner – His Contemporaries & Followers at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon, on November 18, perhaps as a warm-up to the Ring Cycle she is about to review for Classic Melbourne. Or just because, perhaps she believes you just can’t get enough Wagner!

Please keep an eye on our Ring feature for Heather’s comprehensive reviews.

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