CD Review: Lugansky’s ‘Richard Wagner: Famous Opera Scenes’

By Bob Dieschburg

Transcriptions are not just a measure of any given opera’s popular success. They are also tokens to their longevity and, in the case of Richard Wagner, a bourgeois substitute for the lengthy and very costly stage works not often performed in 19th and early 20th century theaters. Instead, it would be customary to relish the melodic sweeps of the “Tannhäuser” overture or the grandiloquence of the “Ring” in upper middle class salons. There, pianists would partake in the repertory by virtuosically condensing orchestral structure and tonal harmony.

For Wagner, examples are legion. The most prominent include Glenn Gould, Zoltán Kocsis, Llyr Williams (excellent on Signum Classics), and the Muscovite Nikolai Lugansky. The latter has now produced an imposing chef d’oeuvre titled, most inconspicuously, “Richard Wagner: Famous Opera Scenes.”

Recounting the Tetralogy

Unlike what the title suggests, the program is not just a compilation; rather, it represents the near-gargantuan attempt at pianistically recounting the tetralogy by re-enacting key moments in sheer and endlessly variegated nuance and dramatic continuity, from the Gods’ entry into Valhalla to the immolation scene from “Götterdämmerung.”

The transcriptions are mostly his own, based on painstakingly recreated performances from 2001 and 2002. Brassin, Liszt, and Kocsis also play their part, especially in the glowing arrangement of the “Verwandlungsmusik” – an addendum of sorts, from “Parsifal” – in which Lugansky unusually transitions to the resolutive chords of the finale, inspired by Kocsis.

The overall tenor is one of solemn gravity, unkeen on sacrificing forward-thrust for idleness. Yet the brilliantly captured Steinway sound is malleable, and easily adapts to the many voices of the Wagner orchestra. Even as pastose a passage as Wotan’s farewell (“Feuerzauber”) barely loses any of the cumulative heft from its operatic pendant. This is due to interpretational acuity, by timing the rubati to their most efficient.

A Knappertsbusch and Solti… of Sorts

If one had to describe Lugansky’s style, it would – at the pulpit – be half-way between Knappertsbusch and maybe Georg Solti. His narrative intensity is undeniable, yet so is the care for color and effect. “Siegfried’s Trauermarsch” has the majestic ring of a funerary procession, enhanced by ritardandi and, again, the pianist’s rubato.

How then does Lugansky fare compared to the Stradal transcriptions by Juan Guillermo Vizcarra (on Toccata Classics) or the already mentioned Llyr Williams? Above all, Lugansky proves himself a narrator of sheer peerless caliber, as every track naturally transitions into the next. He conjures a pianistic fresco which in its wealth of harmonies ranks as a perfect match to Wagner’s original scoring, the only regret being – it clocks in at just around an hour!


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