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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2011

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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…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 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.




Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2011

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…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 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.



Jeffrey Kauffman
Blu-ray.com, January 2011

Oh, those wild and wacky record company executives. What will they think of next? As Lorin Maazel reveals in the brief interview included as a supplement on this new Blu-ray performance of one of his best-selling albums, The Ring Without Words, it was the continued insistence of a Telarc grand poobah which finally got Maazel to realize something he had actually been thinking of for decades, since his first Bayreuth conducting experience, when Richard Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, mentioned that the score, as opposed to the libretto, of The Ring was “the text behind the text, the universal subconscious that binds Wagner’s personae one to the other and to the proto-ego of the legend.” And who says the Wagner family is hard to understand? Of course Wieland’s point isn’t relegated simply to his grandfather’s magnum opus; music speaks a language far deeper than mere words, and the music of The Ring is no exception. In fact some would argue, perhaps quite persuasively, that it is Richard Wagner’s own labyrinthine libretti that often get in the way of audiences’ appreciation for his work. Certainly there’s respect for Wagner at virtually every level. But when was the last time someone actually said they enjoyed The Ring? (Ignore my recent rave reviews of the Fura del Baus cycle for the sake of this discussion). None other than that glittering legend of show business, Liberace, used to actually brag that in his concert performances of classical pieces he would “cut out all the boring parts,” and just stick to the more easily accessible and better known main themes of any given piece. That may indeed be a deplorable practice, and it might have been fear of the critical reaction that kept Maazel from attempting to do something at least partially along the same lines with his Ring Without Words. But the fact is his “symphonic synthesis” is an interesting piece in its own right. It’s obviously horribly abbreviated, but it has its own internal consistency and it may help to bring The Ring to a new generation of audiences who aren’t exactly ga-ga for breastplates, winged helmets and other flotsam and jetsam of Wagner productions gone by.

Wieland Wagner was thought of as a revolutionary iconoclast in the post-World War II era of Bayreuth. He himself, and virtually all of the conductors he hired, had unambiguous ties to the Nazi regime (as the liner notes to this release mention, he called Adolf Hitler “Uncle Wolf”). And yet he decided to forsake the tropes that had long been associated with The Ring, and often went for ultramodern, minimalist interpretations of his grandfather’s epic piece. That same revolutionary, reductionist spirit might be seen as part and parcel of Maazel’s “synthesis.” This is The Ring boiled down to a few major moments, literally four to six segments per opera (including The Ring’s prelude, Das Rheingold).

So you don’t have four nights and twelve to fifteen hours to spend getting to know those wild and crazy Valkyries, Wälsungs, Nibelungs and, heaven forfend, mere mortals who populate Wagner complete Ring cycle? And frankly, do you not have the time to wade through the seemingly insane concatenation of characters, motives and countermotives which creates one of the most famously epic pieces in all of operatic literature. Then The Ring Without Words may in fact be just your ticket. Purists will no doubt cry foul, and that’s understandable. But is it possible to accept this piece on its own merits, devoid of any extracurricular association with its source material? The answer is unfortunately not completely clear cut.

On the “yes” side of the equation, it’s inarguable that Maazel has done an astoundingly effective job at creating what amounts to an orchestral suite of around an hour and a half out of several hours’ worth of music. He’s done so without adding any of his own music, or in fact changing any of Wagner’s to allow for segues or bridging material. That means what you get here is Wagner himself, boiled down to a few core motifs and themes. That is one of the saving graces of The Ring Without Words. There’s nothing extraneous here.

On the “no” side of the equation, for anyone with even a passing knowledge of the complete Ring Cycle, there are bound to be head scratching queries as to why this or that segment was left in the editing dust. Also, part of what makes The Ring such an exceptional theatrical experience is the very weight and depth of sitting through hours and hours of material. It’s the slow accretion of motifs, of character arcs, of a slow dramatic slog through epically iconic and mythical figures, that gives The Ring its gravitas. And that’s largely what’s missing from The Ring Without Words. It’s like a Reader’s Digest version of the score, only perhaps worse: it’s like a Reader’s Digest version of a Reader’s Digest version of the score.

This is an interesting idea that evidently according to Maazel sold hundreds of thousands of units on CD, so there is obviously an audience for it. And I’m certainly not one to argue against anything that introduces a bit of high culture to anyone who might not otherwise be prone to experience it. If you’ve never seen or heard any piece of The Ring, this is certainly an agreeable enough introduction. It’s smart, compact and ably gives, in Maazel’s own words, “a little window” into the vast landscape that is Wagner’s prime operatic achievement. If you have experienced The Ring, chances are you won’t be swayed by this truncated instrumental version.

Video Quality

This 2000 concert with The Berlin Philharmonic is delivered onto Blu-ray via the MPEG-2 codec, in 1080i and 1.78:1. While there’s nothing really horrible looking here, it’s a pallid and not overly sharp presentation. Flesh tones seem especially anemic, perhaps due to unfortunate stage lighting. Midrange and far range shots of the orchestra, taken from around the concert hall, often mask fine detail in a blur of inchoate motion. Close-ups on the other hand look fairly good, other than the odd color.

Audio Quality

Both lossless audio options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0, sound boisterous and bombastic on this Blu-ray, and they are without a doubt the best thing about this hi-def presentation. Maazel, despite his long association with The Ring, probably doesn’t spring to most peoples’ minds when asked to name their favorite Wagner conductor, but he does an able, if not overly ferocious, job here. While this is perhaps a more measured performance than one might ask for, the recording itself is top notch, with deep, sonorous brass, and strong but never strident strings. The orchestral forces are balanced nicely and the surround track provides clear hall ambience and a nice spaciousness that really allows the listener into Wagner’s massive soundworld. Fidelity is spot on throughout the performance and the dynamic range, as might be expected, is absolutely stupendous.

Special Features and Extras

An Interview with Lorin Maazel (1080i; 5:11) offers the conductor giving some background on the project, interspersed with snippets from the concert itself.

Overall Score and Recommendation

If you’re a Wagner neophyte and are looking for an “easy in” to the often arcane and recondite world of the composer, this Blu-ray comes Recommended. If, on the other hand, you’re an old Wagner hand, this release is probably more of an Interesting Curio.



Robert Benson
ClassicalCDReview.com, January 2011

In 1987 Lorin Maazel and the Berlin Philharmonic made a Telarc recording of the conductor’s adaptation of music from Wagner’s Ring into a lengthy symphonic synthesis. Now we have this video of the same music recorded in Berlin’s Philharmonie October 17–18, 2000. All of the major orchestral interludes are included, some truncated a bit. The Berlin Philharmonic plays magnificently, particularly the brass section! Video gives us the expected close ups of important solos with uncommon clarity, and audio quality is outstanding. I doubt this recording, made a dozen years ago, is true surround sound, but what is heard is totally satisfying. This is a wonderful issue, to which I will return often. Also included is a 5-minute interview with the conductor.






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