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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Concert Review: The Nibelung Express

The Vienna Philharmonic plays Mozart and Wagner.
by Paul Pelkonen
Mighty re-arranger: Lorin Maazel conducted his version of The Ring Without Words.
Photo by Silvia Lelli.
On Saturday night, Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic played their second concert of their current tour at Carnegie Hall. This performance, featuring the music of Mozart and Wagner, was a vast improvement on the Friday night set of Sibelius symphonies.

Maybe it was the repertory chosen: a pairing of Mozart's familiar Symphony No. 40 in G minor with Mr. Maazel's own arrangement of The Ring Without Words, 70 minutes of highlights from Wagner's operatic masterwork. Or maybe it was the presence of WQXR, which carried a live feed of the performance to their radio and Internet listeners.

The Mozart was played in a stately, precise manner. The famous themes developed smoothly, with the woodwind playing balanced right alongside the strings. The second movement was taken at a slow, almost crawling tempo, and would have benefited from more energy. The Minuet and Finale crackled, showing the close ties of history and tradition between this orchestra and composer.

Lorin Maazel is not the first conductor to re-configure music from Wagner's Ring as an orchestral showpiece. His version, (which he premiered in 1987 with the Berlin Philharmonic) makes some unusual editorial choices. It follows the plot of the Ring sequentially, but some of the traditional showpieces (notably, the Magic Fire Music) are skipped, in favor of re-telling the story in an organic, musical way.

Like its operatic parent, The Ring Without Words opens with the E♭ Major chord that starts Das Rheingold. This was followed by two of the orchestral interludes from that opera: the statement of the "Valhalla" theme by four Wagner tubas and the pell-mell "Journey into Nibelheim", with three Vienna Philharmonic percussion players manning the anvils on stage right. Donner's brief aria (played on the trombone) and thunder-strike were included, but the expected, and familiar Entrance of the Gods was omitted in favor of a direct transition to the opening of Act I of Die Walküre.

This is an express-train version of that long opera. Donner's storm music gives way to the lyric cello solo for Sieglinde and the final triumphant notes of Act I, chronicling the steamy, incestuous love affair of Siegfried's parents. The Act II and III statements of The Ride of the Valkyries quicken the pace. This Ride had wings of steel, and nobody fell off their horses. Welcome attention was paid to Wotan's Farewell, with the cellos singing right along with the absent bass-baritone.

From there, Mr. Maazel's arrangement plunged straight into Siegfried, depicting Mime's nightmare music, the forging of (the sword) Nothung, the Forest Murmurs and the forest brawl between the titular hero and the dragon Fafner. Suddenly: Götterdämmerung with the familiar Dawn and Rhine Journey. The orchestra were getting tired at this point, with a few fluffed chords in the brass and a notorious "fish" (the old Vienna term for a bad note) in the off-stage horn-call. They soldiered on, roaring out the "Summoning of the Vassals" (from Act II) and playing lyrically in the Prelude to Act III, which depicts re-appearance of the Rhine-maidens.

This led directly into the moments after Siegfried's assassination, and a statement of "Brunnhilde's Awakening" as the tenor dies. The funeral music followed, played with searing power by the Vienna forces, biting fiercely into the great, dissonant chords and playing a parade of "Siegfried" themes led by principal trombone Ian Bousfield. From the funeral, it was a quick transition to the Immolation scene, presented here as pure music without the distractions of soprano, horse, or large, potentially malfunctioning sets. As the final D Major chords of the Ring resounded in Carnegie Hall, the audience was allowed to bask in the luxuriant waters of the Rhine, perfectly played by the orchestra from the Danube.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.