There are many perfectly musical listeners who cannot stand Wagnerian opera - not because of any objection to the music per se, but because they simply don’t like the sound that heroic Wagnerian singers make. In many cases, I am afraid, their suspicions are all too justified. It is for this audience that Henk de Vlieger prepared his ‘orchestral adventure’ in 1991. It has already received two recordings under Neeme Järvi on Chandos and from Edo de Waart (who originally commissioned the arrangement) now available as part of a three-disc set on Challenge. BIS now join the fray, so presumably there is an audience for Wagner’s Ring presented in this manner.
It has to be said that de Vlieger has approached his task with sympathy and no small degree of expertise. The result is designed to be played as a single continuous movement but without the addition of any bridging passages or more than minimal rescoring, to leave the result as close to pure Wagner as possible. There are one or two slightly surprising modulations, which can leave the listener familiar with the work in its original form with a slightly uncomfortable feeling of stepping on a stair that isn’t there but none of these fall outside the realm of the sort of thing that Wagner did himself. What is slightly less satisfactory is the manner in which sections of music which would normally come to a full close are shaded off to lead into the next piece. This happens at the end of both Rheingold and Walküre. It seems to disturb the listener’s expectations to no really good purpose. Since de Vlieger does permit the music to come to a full stop at several points, one might have wished him to allow this to happen more often. Also less commendable is the way in which cuts are made within the context of passages which we would expect to encounter at full length - as in the Ride of the Valkyries, or the opening sections of the Dawn music and the Magic Fire Music. He also gives us rather short measure in the excerpts from Siegfried and Walküre, where apart from the Ride we are given none of the preludes to the individual Acts which are after all the longest orchestral sections of those scores. Then again I suppose we could all think of things we would have like to hear included, and de Vlieger does include some rather unexpected passages to good effect.
What makes this disc rather special, and of interest to more than just would-be Wagnerians who are allergic to voices, is the sheer quality of the interpretation and orchestral playing. In the rival versions, Järvi is undeniably somewhat brusque with the music, pushing ahead through the score in a manner which tends to leave the impression of one purple passage succeeding another. De Waart is somewhat more measured. Lawrence Renes allows the music full time to breathe and expand, and he extracts superb playing from his orchestra. They must, after all, find this abridgement of the score - with, for example, the 5th to 8th horns having to switch backwards and forwards between horns and Wagner tubas with much less time than Wagner allows them in the original operas - a rather different challenge to theatre performances. He earns a real plus point too with his delivery of the final pages. There, for once we are able properly to hear the counterpoint in the bass outlining the variant of the Götterdämmerung motif sometimes called the ‘need of the Gods’ clearly delineated against the Valhalla motif which usually overwhelms it. However a few bars later he blots his copybook by the insertion of a Luftpause just before the final statement of the ‘redemption’ motif. Wagner did not ask for this, although it is often done - by Solti among others. Reginald Goodall clearly shows that the music works better without it. Both Järvi and de Waart make a short break at this point, but with Renes it stretches out for far too long, robbing the music of momentum and disturbing the downward progress of the bass line in the orchestra.
The sound, as one expects from BIS, is superlative. The booklet contains a four-page essay by Stefan Johansson which not only spends two pages justifying the idea of an orchestral ‘version’ of the Ring but manages to describe the whole plot of the cycle without omitting any essential detail. For newcomers to the Ring this will be invaluable.
Paul Corfield Godfrey