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An Orchestral Singing in the Rhine

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
06/11/2008 -  
Richard Wagner/Lorin Maazel: The Ring Without Words
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Music Director and Conductor)

The word “indefatigable” would be an insult to Lorin Maazel. He is the type of conductor who cleans Augean stables for pleasure, who single-handedly builds a couple of pyramids in Giza, then hops over to Rhodes and erects the Colossus before relaxing by re-planting the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

And no, the Maestro doesn’t do everything with the same polish, the same perfection. But when he is good, he is very good, and when he is bad, it is only moderate.

Take this June, when New York is municipally inert, melting under temperatures which would make even Thailand perspire. Maazel is conducting four nights of Puccini’s Tosca (in the concert version).This is between three gigantic pieces of music—each of them lasting more than an hour, exhausting every orchestra member to the limit.

Last week it was a somewhat lugubrious but certainly forceful Mahler Ninth Symphony Next week, he will take the C Minor Symphony—not Beethoven’s Fifth, but Bruckner’s sweeping dramatic Eighth. And last night, he took all 15 hours of Wagner’s Ring and condensed them into a mere 75 minutes. I have a recording of Maazel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in his work, and while it is more “perfect”, the NY Phil played it with all the richness it deserves. Even better is that it took place in Carnegie Hall, where all the resonance of the brass, the echoes of the horns (on stage and off) and the whole orchestra watching Valhalla fall came out with thunderous passion

One still must ask the three questions which a great director said film critics must ask: a) What was the director trying to do? b) How well did he accomplish this? c) Was it worth doing?

Maazel, the first American to conduct the Ring at Bayreuth, was trying to meet the “challenge” of doing a symphonic synthesis, of including the orchestral work of the opera, and in the rare vocal sections, having a violin or cello or flute approximate the voice.

How well did he do it? Well, this is a mighty work, but actually pretty simple. Mahler and Bruckner not only have “themes” but they play with them, vary them, one can concentrate on the orchestration or analyze the structure, the metamorphosis, the meaning behind the changes. Ring Without Words could be called, in 17th Century terms, a “through-composed work”, which goes on its way, rarely looking back. In fact, the piece is a sort of travelogue, where we go from Rhine waters to Valhalla to the mountain and back again.

Maazel was not the first to do this, Hindemtih “synthesized” his Mathis der Mahler, Janacek made orchestral suites of his operas. But these were not 15-hour epics, and Maazel gives those who neither care nor wish to follow these crazy mortals and immortals, plenty to hear.

Was it worth doing? Mark Twain, who knew German, said he liked Wagner “despite the singing.” George Bernard Shaw said that Wagner, with Handel, “were the best writers for the voice”, so he probably would not have thought it worthy. I doubt if Wagner addicts—who, like dog-lovers, care not for those outside their charmed opera/dog rings—would approve of touching Herr Master.

Certainly the opera themselves have their own momentum, and the language is hardly untranslatable. (I once saw Siegfried translated into Thai!) Yet as introduction to Wagner, Ring Without Words is suitable. (Too much so: when Ride of the Valkyries came on, the audience collectively nodded their heads like dashboard marionettes.)

But if Maazel saw this as a “challenge”, he has met it like Siegfried slaying the dragon. Unlike the operas, which take mental and physical stamina from artists and audience, this Ring Without Words is cotton candy to hear, Wagner without words, and in its dramatic, surging, pulsing popular anthems, Wagner without fears.

Harry Rolnick



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