The Ring Without Words
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 11 June, 2008
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Music director Lorin Maazel brought the New York Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall for a performance of “The Ring Without Words”, a 70-minute-long symphonic synthesis that he compiled in 1987 from orchestral passages from Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” tetralogy. It was wonderful to hear this stirring and deeply moving music played brilliantly by a great orchestra in the ideal surroundings of Stern Auditorium. Yet this was a case where the whole was less than the sum of its parts, where one could say, without self-contradiction, “I loved all of the music … but I didn’t love the piece.”
On the positive side, the Philharmonic’s musicians created an incredible sound that resonated magnificently in the Hall, playing more forcefully at many points than would be possible from an opera-house pit without creating an imbalance between the orchestral passages and the singers. For sheer quality of sound and dramatic power, this was a treat. The oversized sections of horns and brass – there were 8 horns (with 4 doubling Wagner tubas) in addition to 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 4 trombones and tuba – play a prominent part in the ‘Ring’, and these musicians were brilliant throughout, giving powerful renditions of such familiar passages as ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’, both featuring excellent solos from principal trumpeter Philip Smith. Among other principals contributing noteworthy solos were Philip Myers, who retreated off-stage to play the horn-call that launches ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, Alan Baer, portraying on the tuba Fafner in his embodiment as a dragon, and guest Colin Williams (from the Atlanta Symphony) voiced on trombone Donner’s summoning of a thunderbolt (principal trombonist Joseph Alessi was playing bass trumpet). The percussionists and two timpanists were kept busy, beginning with the off-stage anvil strikes that accompany Wotan and Loge as they descend to Nibelheim and the booming thunder produced by Donner’s hammer.
Of course, not every passage in the ‘Ring’ is dominated by brass and percussion. The Philharmonic’s strings were marvellous in depicting the surging of the Rhine, the storm from which Siegmund sought shelter, his and Sieglinde’s love-motif (with a beautiful solo by principal cellist Carter Brey), the ‘Forest Murmurs’ (with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow contributing a lovely solo), and the soaring redemption motive in the ‘Immolation Scene’ that brings the ‘Ring’ cycle to an end. The harps – four of them – were often overshadowed by the sheer volume of the rest of the orchestra, but they did make their vital contribution in the depiction of the sleeping Brünnhilde at the end of “Die Walküre”.
The many excellent contributions from the woodwinds began with the opening of “Das Rheingold”, which depicts the force of nature and its manifestation in the surging of the Rhine. The flute and oboe were poignant as Wotan bade farewell to his disobedient daughter, Brünnhilde, as were the bassoons when magic sleep overcame her. The flute and clarinet combined beautifully in depicting the wood-bird in ‘Forest Murmurs’ and during the encounter between Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens that begins the final act of “Götterdämmerung”. Principal oboist Liang Wang excellently intoned the wood-bird’s vocal line and also contributed sorrowful solos in the ‘Funeral Music’. In the final scene, flutes and piccolo were prominent, depicting the immolating fire and adding a majestic touch to the final redemption motive.
Maazel conducted in his usual rubato-laden style, which dragged at some points – in ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, for example – and overstated the obvious at others. This was only a minor problem, however, compared with a more serious one inherent in the conception itself.
In the final analysis, “The Ring Without Words” is not a composition, but a pastiche – albeit one comprised of selections of great music. It takes its form as the consequence of how Maazel defined for himself the task of compiling it. His guiding principles were that the piece must flow without pause and in chronological sequence – from the first note of “Das Rheingold“ to the last chord of “Götterdämmerung“ – using only Wagner’s own notes whilst incorporating most of the operas’ orchestra-only passages. The most daunting challenge was to select appropriate transitional passages from the portions of the score lying between the great orchestral highlights, and not all of Maazel’s selections work effectively.
As Maazel’s synthesis moved from one dramatic musical episode to the next, inveterate Wagnerians who know the ‘Ring’ inside out could follow its complicated plot – aided by the leitmotifs assigned to every character, object, event and emotion in the drama – and could mentally fill in elements that were omitted between selections, even when a transitional passage had little or no musical relationship to the selections it bridged. For such listeners, myself included, “The Ring Without Words” was like a highly enjoyable reunion with old friends.
Although I find it difficult to imagine myself being in the position of someone who lacks familiarity with the ‘Ring’, it would seem that to such a listener Maazel’s carefully observed organisational principles would have no significance whatever. In the absence of any meaningful contextual framework, this succession of scenes makes no sense, musically or otherwise. The rising and falling of tensions, the alternation of climaxes and anticlimaxes correspond to the external vicissitudes of Wagner’s epic story, not to what would make a successful orchestral composition.
Of course, many of the magnificent orchestral passages that were heard in this concert can be, and often are, performed alone as masterpieces in their own right. But might their impact have been diminished – at least for those not familiar with their placement and significance within the ‘Ring’ cycle – by their being strung together in what was, for such listeners, an essentially arbitrary fashion? The audience’s enthusiastic ovation at the concert’s end would suggest otherwise.