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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Der Ring ohne Worte (arr. Lorin Maazel) [72.20]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. 2016, Neue Weimarhalle

Some four years ago I reviewed for this site a release of Henk de Vlieger’s orchestral The Ring: a musical adventure which the arranger had originally issued in 1991. I suggested then that there was clearly a market for a version of Wagner’s Ring which dispensed with the problems of finding adequate singers to encompass some of the most strenuous roles in the operatic repertoire, while at the same time allowing listeners to hear more of the score than the usual orchestral episodes which tended from time to time to feature in concert programmes. When discussing de Vlieger’s work I neglected to mention that he was not the first to plough this particular furrow; some four years earlier Lorin Maazel had undertaken a similar task for a CD release on the Telarc label, which he afterwards performed a good many times in concert. Maazel had solid Wagnerian credentials – he had conducted the Ring itself at Bayreuth in 1968-69, although my memories of a radio broadcast of one of these performances had left me with the impression of a rather superficial traversal of the music. Here Maazel goes one step further than de Vlieger’s ‘musical adventure’ with what he grandly describes as a ‘symphonic poem’, although in fact what we have here is – like de Vlieger – a selection of orchestral passages from the Ring laid end to end with little obvious sense of symphonic development.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Maazel, like de Vlieger, actually omits some of the music that we might have expected to hear. The Ride of the Valkyries, surely the most frequently heard of all excerpts from the score, is quite heavily abridged with the massive final statement of the theme completely missing. Similarly the whole of the closing section of Wotan’s farewell and Magic Fire Music is simply omitted, the music jumping from Wotan’s summons to Loge to the end of Act One, Scene Two of Siegfried – one of several juxtapositions that jar horribly with any listener who knows the music at all well. Indeed by and large Maazel manages these transitions with less finesse than de Vlieger, although his move from Fafner’s death to the opening of the Dawn music is surprisingly effective. Maazel is also more willing than de Vlieger to allow Wagner’s full closes at the ends of Acts to be heard without apology; but this does make for a very brief movement of less than three minutes [track 7] which combines the opening and closing passages of Act Two of Die Walküre unconvincingly stitched together (and not helped here by an unwarranted slowing of the pace at one point which sacrifices the driving momentum of the music). Indeed, like de Vlieger, Maazel seems to go out of his way to avoid passages which he might surely have embraced; apart from the Ride of the Valkyries we are given none of the preludes to the individual Acts of Die Walküre or Siegfried, which are after all the most substantial passages of orchestral music in those respective scores. Maazel allows us to hear some seven minutes more of Wagner’s music than de Vlieger, but that may be due in part to the performance under consideration here.

In the Prelude to Das Rheingold Hansjörg Albrecht takes a very steady approach to the music, and although this has a sense of monumentality it does detract from the onrushing string arpeggios which depict the flowing of the Rhine across the stage which would be revealed if the curtain were to open. He takes a more excited approach to the Descent to Nibelheim, but his anvils sound a rather weedy bunch, more like an express train negotiating a set of points than a manifestation of industrial might rising from the depths. Similarly his allocation of the vocal part in Donner’s forging of the rainbow bridge to a solo trombone might have been more effective if the player had sounded more involved, less concerned simply to produce a ‘musical’ tone. And this, I fear, becomes an increasing problem as it becomes clear that Albrecht lacks a sense of emotional and dramatic engagement with some of the most emotional and dramatic music in the operatic repertoire. The delivery of Hagens Ruf [track 17], one of Maazel’s least effective realisations, is an example of what happens when concern for musical values is allowed to override Wagner’s depiction of primal forces at work. Even in the closing section [track 20] the balance in the orchestra is badly awry, the woodwinds’ lilting phrases depicting the Rhinemaidens more or less completely eclipsing the violins’s delivery of the ‘Redemption motif’ which should float above them. I have complained before on many occasions about the annoying habit of conductors (including many of the best) who insist on inserting a pause before the final eight bars of the score – an effect which Wagner does not request, and which Goodall, Barenboim and others demonstrate is not only unnecessary but breaks the inexorable downward descent of the bass line which Wagner so clearly envisioned. Suffice it to say that in this performance Albrecht not only intrudes this inauthentic pause, but sustains it for longer than any other conductor I have ever heard – nearly a full bar of silence when none is wanted.

The booklet, in German and English, contains a lengthy essay (over seven pages) by Eva Gesine Baur on the relationship between Wagner and Weimar, with inevitably substantial reference to Liszt. This is interesting, and introduced me to some sidelights on both Wagner and Liszt of which I was not previously aware; but its relevance to the Ring is tangential at best. Regarding the latter work we are given a single page of synopsis by Maazel and Albrecht which seems to assume considerable familiarity with the work as a whole. The recording is described in the booklet as ‘live’ but there is no evidence whatsoever of any audience.

Wagner’s Ring is of course a work that is best encountered as a whole, but life is short and many listeners (including those who enjoy full-length Wagner) will enjoy the chance once in a while to listen to a ‘potted’ version. One might have wished that both Maazel and de Vlieger had allowed themselves more time to include (for example) the Siegfried preludes, as well as to avoid the truncation of well-known items such as the Ride of the Valkyries or the Magic Fire Music. If it comes down to a straightforward choice, however, I would generally prefer de Vlieger’s somewhat smoother transitions to those of Maazel; and if I were seeking a recording of Maazel’s version, there are two recordings by Maazel himself, both with the Berlin Philharmonic, one on CD and one in video formats. Maazel’s 1969 Bayreuth performance of the complete score is also available in what is presumably a ‘pirated’ edition from the radio broadcasts to which I referred earlier.

Finally may I thank Ralph Moore who in a contribution to the message board on this site drew my attention to yet another orchestral synthesis of the Ring, this time extending for some half an hour longer than either Maazel or de Vlieger and therefore necessitating two CDs for a recording. But this longer-length work, entitled “The Symphonic Ring”, can include all the highlights at full length including all the orchestral material (Siegfried preludes, etc) which the shorter adaptations have of necessity to omit. And the additional length also means that the transitions between individual sections of the score can be much more smoothly managed. It would seem to me that this newer version by Friedmann Dressler (dating from 2011) should be the first port-of-call for any listener wishing to hear Wagner’s Ring without voices. There are already a couple of recordings in the catalogues.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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