Lorin Maazel made his debut at Bayreuth in 1960, with a production of Lohengrin, so he’s no stranger to Wagner. The composer’s grandson Wieland (1917-1966) held sway at the Festspielhaus then, dividing critics with modern, minimalist stagings of his grandfather’s works. Post-war austerity was one reason for this move from cumbersome naturalism to simpler, more symbolic sets, but implicit in that change was Wieland’s firmly-held belief that the essence of these vast music-dramas lies in the music itself.
In 1987, Telarc asked Maazel to prepare a 75-minute distillation of the Ring, which they recorded with him conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker (Telarc CD 80154). Not an unusual request, given that Wagner’s lengthy operas have spawned collections of orchestral excerpts over the years. The difference here is that all four works in the tetralogy – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – are stitched together into a single, cohesive piece. Purists will blench at the very concept, but in mitigation every note is Wagner’s; nothing has been added or recomposed.
Maazel’s isn’t the only orchestral Ring around; in 2007, Chandos recorded the Dutch composer Henk de Vlieger’s arrangement – The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure – but try as I might I just could not engage with it (review). And there’s more of the same from this source; Parsifal: An Orchestral Quest (CHSA 5077) and Tristan and Isolde: An Orchestral Passion (CHSA 5087). These are audio-only, so if it’s high-resolution visuals you’re after Maazel’s your only option. Recorded more than a decade ago, this orchestral Ring has finally made the leap from DVD to Blu-ray, with the tantalising promise of better sound and pictures.
And if that low E-flat drone at the start of Das Rheingold doesn’t captivate you, nothing will. Goodness, the Berliners sound magnificent, that opening close-up of cello strings and bow almost holographic in its detail. Don’t fret, though, as the camerawork is pretty discreet, the music firmly centre stage throughout. The sound – in two-channel PCM at least – is stunning in its range and focus, the brass especially well caught. I’m certainly not a dyed-in-the–wool Wagnerite, but I’ve never heard this iconic music sound so glorious, nor sensed the drama unfolding with such grandeur and purpose.
Condensing fifteen hours of music down to 80 minutes is a huge challenge, so it’s not surprising that Maazel has concentrated on the usual highlights. Remarkably, though, he’s managed to make it all sound so coherent and seamless, something de Vlieger’s arrangement doesn’t quite do. There’s no time to waste, and we plunge straight into Die Walküre; here the Berliners take us on an intoxicating, thrustful ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, side drum a-snapping and cymbals sizzling to great effect. And even this usually patrician, old-school conductor gets caught up in the surge of ‘Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music’; the brass are splendid here, the whole orchestra playing with formidable passion and sweep.
The highlights of Siegfried include the forging of the magic sword – played with real panache – and ‘Forest murmurs’; the echt-Romantic bird calls of the latter are most beautifully phrased and recorded. And if you aren’t all frissoned out yet, cower to the baying brass as Siegfried slays the dragon, Fafner. At moments like these it’s clear that Blu-ray really does represent a quantum leap in terms of recorded sound. Indeed, if it’s this good in standard PCM stereo I can only guess what it must be like in DTS-HD Master Audio Surround.
In Götterdämmerung the highlight must be ‘Dawn
and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, where Wagner is
at his most painterly. Some may find Maazel a little too brisk
at this point, but there’s no denying the virility and
thrust of his reading. As for the Berliners, they take such
speeds in their stride. Meanwhile, the bass players dig into
their strings in the dark music of Hagen’s call to his
clan, but it’s the horns who cover themselves in glory
with the music of Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens. In terms of
sheer beauty of tone, blend and articulation, these players
really are on the side of the angels.
This extraordinary Ring comes to a close with ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music’ and the ‘Immolation Scene’. The hero’s sad cortège has seldom sounded so gravely beautiful – some rich, noble sounds from the bassoons, powerful, grief-struck timps – and Maazel maintains that all-important sense of an epic narrative to the very end. He allows himself a faint smile as the finale approaches – as well he might, for this is an exceptional event. The warm, prolonged applause is well deserved.
As a musical/dramatic entity The Ring Without Words is a resounding success; as a performance, it’s as good as it gets; and as a technical achievement, it fulfils the sonic and visual promise of Blu-ray.
Early days yet, but this is already on my list of picks for 2011.