★★★★½ A behind-the-scenes look at Wagner’s influence in words and music.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
July 24, 2016

When Tannhäuser was revised for its Paris Opera premiere in 1861 members of the Jockey Club booed and hissed and it was withdrawn after three performances. Princess Pauline Metternich, daughter-in-law of the eminent statesman Klemens, who continued to champion the composer despite some French resistance, had arranged the performance for Wagner. As a thank you for her support, Wagner composed a charming little piano piece, In das Album der Furstin M, and this work formed the keystone of an unusual words-and-music presentation for the Utzon Series by Wagner expert Peter Bassett and young Brisbane pianist Alex Raineri.

The work suggests the influence of Mendelssohn and his Songs Without Words sets, rather than the composer’s powerful, mature style. The two composers knew each other in Dresden in the 1840s but had little in common. Wagner, the anti-Semite, was disparaging of Mendelssohn the Jew 20 years later, describing him as “a great landscape painter who fails to move us to the depths of our souls”. But at the time Mendelssohn wrote Variations sérieuses, the young Wagner felt he himself could not compare as a musician.

Only two years older than Wagner, Liszt was his greatest and most important champion, giving him much-needed money as well as promoting his music. Bassett quoted an amusing letter about Liszt attending a performance of the Tannhäuser Overture in Paris. When the anti-Wagnerian audience failed to respond enthusiastically enough Liszt stood up in his box and applauded loudly. The audience of course recognised him and applauded him, so he shouted “encore” and they echoed it and the Overture was performed again.

Letters from one of Liszt’s three daughters, born out of wedlock to Marie d’Agoult, and his reply to them shine an interesting light into his approach to parenting – the children were forbidden from seeing or writing to their mother and he was not best pleased when they traced her and met her. Wagner also fathered three children out of wedlock to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, wife of his supporter the conductor Hans von Bülow, causing a 11-year rift between the two composers which was finally reconciled after Wagner wrote a moving tribute to their friendship, inviting Liszt to Bayreuth in 1872.

As a marked contrast to Liszt’s failings as a father, Bassett and Raineri chose the “balanced lyricism” of Sposalizio, the first piece in his Italian Pilgrimage, based on Raphael’s painting of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. The spiritual purity and beauty of this work was a neat foil to Liszt’s arrangement of the famously passionate and erotic Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. This work was the direct inspiration for the final two works on the programme, piano sonatas by Alban Berg (Op. 1) and Alexander Scriabin (No.4 Op 30).

Berg, apparently, couldn’t walk past a piano without playing the Tristan chord. Hearing this piece played straight after the Liebestod arrangement made one realise how Berg’s piece is virtually a mirror of the Wagner. Scriabin, on the other hand, a man who described himself as God and who believed he could fly, starts his two-part F Sharp Major sonata with a Wagnerian sweep of sensuality, quoting from the original, before breaking into some eccentric rhythms and the eventual “transfiguration” that ends the Liebestod.

Bassett’s erudite narrative, liberally spiced with humour – for instance Tolstoy likened the effects of hearing Tristan to a liberal helping of hashish – made for a fascinating and enjoyable 80-minute presentation, while Raineri showed superlative technique and sustained brilliance of tone and dynamic, with some gutsy left-hand and thrilling right-hand tremolos, throughout the programme.