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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Wagner’s Piano Sonatas

By (September 25, 2013) No Comment

Richard Wagner: piano sonatas
CPO

cpo7778002What did Wagner do before he became Wagner? In 1832 he wrote a pair of piano sonatas, a timely idea for a musician of 19, trying to find his voice. Beethoven was five years dead and no-one had yet dared to address his summit 32 sonatas. Perfect opportunity for a brash Leipzig iconoclast.

Except he lacked the means. Wagner for piano is like Turner for the blind: he simply has no way to make himself comprehensible even when, as in the finale of the B-flat sonata, he takes on a theme of Beethoven’s opus 106. The melodies, moderately interesting, lead nowhere in particular and the occasional burst of bombast serves only as a hinted anticipation of operas to come. The first sonata is subsequently denigrated in Wagner’s memoirs and the second was left unprinted.

Tobias Koch plays the pair on an 1852 hammerflügel whose plinkety sound confirms that these works are neither one thing nor the other, ancient or modern. They are, however, well worth hearing for the sheer megalomaniac presumption that a smooth-faced student with no prior experience could match Beethoven at his peak. This fascinating album also contains a set of sung variations by Wagner on the theme of Faust – further proof of an outsized ambition.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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