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Vanessa Wagner: Variations

C. Michael Bailey By

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As viewed through a jazz prism, what is a variation if not an improvisation written down? A transcription of Coleman Hawkin's famous 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" is no different than Bach's Goldberg Variations or Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. All examples present a theme and then melodic variations over the harmonic structure of the theme, and many of the most famous composers wrote variations on their own or other composer's work. French pianist Vanessa Wagner chooses an eclectic collection for her eponymous recital on Ambrosie.

Wagner, who has previously recorded well-received collections of Debussy, Britten, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff, expands her attention well beyond the Late-Romantic Period to include Baroque, Classical, and Modern fare. Haydn's Variations are considered by many as the composer's greatest work for piano and the most profound set of variations between those of Bach and Beethoven. Wagner takes quiet and gentle command of the piece, performing it with an exquisite tenderness.

Rachmaninoff's Corelli variations are thoughtfully rendered by Wagner, whose touch is sure. Her pacing of Rachmaninoff's often craggy modulations is smooth. These variations on a Baroque theme are very much in keeping with the personality of the composer's famous Paganini variations: alternating slow and fast variations with contrasting rhythmic patterns. Wagner's Berio is vibrant and idiosyncratic, just as Berio would have it. This is the least accessible piece of the recital, but is, nevertheless compelling.

Stunning is Rameau's Gavotte variee—this is Wagner at her most beautiful and dynamic. Her playing is so precise one would wonder how her Scarlatti or Bach would sound. However, the Romantic repertoire is her Metier and this is demonstrated no better than on Brahms' Variations on a theme of Schumann, Op. 9. This piece begs the pianist to turn her attention to Schumann miniatures like Kinderszenen.

The value of a recording like Variations is the same as that found with Vladimir Horowitz's Horowitz in Moscow (Deutsche Grammophon, 1986). Both artists devote their respective recitals to multiple and far-reaching musical periods. Vanessa Wagner shines her light through a lens that concentrates it in the small confines of the variation. However, in doing so, she touches 400 years of music.

Track Listing: Haydn: Andante & Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6 (Sonata - un piccolo divertimento); Rachmaninoff: Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42; Berio: Cinque Variazioni (1952/1953

Personnel: Vanessa Wagner: piano.

Title: Variations | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Ambrosie

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