Richard WAGNER (1818-1883) arr. Henk de Vlieger (b.1953)
The Ring – an orchestral adventure [67.09]
Tristan und Isolde – an orchestral passion [64.20]
Parsifal – an orchestral quest [53.58]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Der Ring: April 1992; Parsifal: May 1994; Tristan und Isolde: April 1995. DDD.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72338 [3 CDs: 67.09 + 64.20 + 53.58]

This is a fascinating group of recordings. The sheer excess of tunes and climaxes can seem exhausting. However, devoid of singers and weird productions the music stands up remarkably well.

In Das Rheingold (CD1 Track 2) the start can seem a little disappointing without the shrieks of "Weia! Waga! Woge du Welle!" but before one realises it, so many different textures, otherwise often obscured, are revealed even in the first minute. The skipping, youthful phrases - 10 seconds into track 2 - trill and fascinate. The music sounds new minted. The musical picture of flowing river and youthful emotions is communicated vividly. The lightness of touch evident here only goes to show how often the staging of these operas fail to communicate the Weber-like charm and fantasy of the score. So many zealous producers and lumpy singers have made this music seem stodgy and charmless!

The revolutionary nature of the score is forever evident. The beautiful shining textures and well-recorded orchestra make the martial 'Nibelheim' (CD1 Track 3) very exciting. If not always so dramatic as in some Ring Cycles, the results are never dull. The personality of a Solti or Karajan may be missing - and a central idea is needed to tie together the elements of a full performance of The Ring - but the result is nonetheless effective, letting the music speak for itself.

The horns' entry in Die Walküre is well recorded with a warmth and space missing in many older recordings or even performances such as the Maazel set which cannot compare with the acoustics in the Concertgebouw. Sometimes the selections are not knitted together very smoothly - one misses the process of slowly building up to musical climaxes. Nevertheless, the result rarely feels like 'bleeding chunks'. The trilling woodwind sounds especially beautiful in The Ride of the Valkyries (CD 1, Track 5) which must be more familiar to many listeners as an orchestra-only affair than in its 'proper' place in the opera with singers. This performance is lively without the exaggerated toing and froing evident in many performances both on compilation discs or in the opera house (CD 1, Track 5, 1:36). The tinkling details are caught just as well as the roaring horns in lovely clear stereo sound - good bass.

Speeds tend to be on the fast side with various advantages and disadvantages. In the Fire Music ending Walküre, ("Feuerzauber'' CD 1, Track 6) the result is quicker than Thielemann at Bayreuth in 2007 (Youtube) or Mehta at Valencia in 2008 (Youtube). I prefer Mehta's slower speeds for the section after Wotan calls ''Loge! Hieher!'' until the ring of fire ignites (equivalent to CD 1, Track 6, 0:31 to 0:39). Then again, de Waart's swift speeds sound more fleet-footed and successful as the fire moves around the circle (CD 1, Track 6, 0:39 onwards) than Mehta or Thielemann who sound rather heavy-handed. The quicker speeds de Waart generally employs never sound arbitrary and he provides flexible direction.

Listening to this recording one develops a terrific urge to listen again to the complete operas. The beauties of 'Siegfrieds Heldentat' (CD 1 track 8) are a special highlight as the orchestra play with a special exuberance and a fine horn soloist. Listening to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009 on Youtube you can hear extra drive and a more martial beat which is highly attractive and exciting in this music. The BPO sound more alert and bright, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic more softly focussed but still enjoyable. I believe de Waart's lighter, more speedy approach is a worthwhile interpretation given the pastoral horns and Siegfried’s youthful exuberance. Try CD 1 Track 14 especially at 1:32.

I find Tristan und Isolde less successful as moments such as CD 2, Track 3 "Nachtgesang'' lose so much of their impact without singers. This passage, ''O Sink herneider nacht der Leibe'', sounds bright and beautiful but the extra layer provided by the singers - think of the amorous, erotic outpouring of emotion by Placido Domingo with Nina Stemme - provides the 'passion' at times missing here. Isolde's Liebstod (CD 2, Track 7) also misses a good deal although the result is well played.

I find the Parsifal disc the most impressive of all with the orchestra sounding confident in both extrovert passages and the more quite moments. Track 1 on CD 3, 'Vorspiel' is a sign of the great things to come - most notably ''Karfreitagszauber'' which sounds terrific in both the extrovert moments and the reflective episodes - around the 4 minute mark. With all these CDs the revolutionary nature of the music is obvious with ''Nachspiel'' an extrovert finale to this set. The music is moving - the lovely section 1 minute into Track 7 for example - and the confidence of the orchestra is electrifying. It is astonishing to think that this extraordinary music is quite so old.

I have not heard all the competing versions of this orchestral suite/highlights from The Ring or the other operas. I notice that Chandos has a version called 'Parsifal an Orchestral Quest' which included 45:56 minutes from Parsifal plus extracts from Lohengrin and Tannhauser (total time 69.38). Chandos also have a version of 'The Ring - An orchestral adventure' with a total time of 75.42 and of Tristan und Isolde – An orchestral passion at 51:31. I have been a fan of the Chandos Opera in English series and their Wagner recordings. These sets must be worth considering with the prospect of even finer sound than this set - both are modern recordings which are SACD/CD compatible. Maazel's Teldec set 'Ring without Words' is reasonably cheap and includes one CD worth of music from The Ring. That performance is not so subtle as here but may be worth consideration. Numerous orchestral selections from Wagner's operas exist with a remarkably good standard available on budget labels such as Naxos - certainly worth shopping around for CDs or MP3s.

It may seem ungrateful given the intelligent highlights included here but the only music I missed was anything from Act One of Walküre which is my favourite. Reducing The Ring onto one CD is not wholly successful. Too many climactic moments are crammed into 70 minutes with the result sounding too hyperactive. This also stands for other versions such as the Chandos SACD set or the Maazel Teldec recording. A 2CD set of The Ring would be a better idea than one for each of The Ring, Tristan and Parsifal.

A limitation of 'opera without words' is that Wagner conceived the work as a union of stage, orchestra and singers. Words and language were important to him - perhaps more so than any composer before him. What we have here is but one component of this complete entertainment. Sometimes the loss of singers and text hurts more than others. This remains a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavour, however, which I'm sure will tempt many classical music fans towards operatic music.

David Bennett

An enjoyable set - could be a good introduction for listeners intimidated by The Ring, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.