Condensed Wagner Fails to Convince

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Naked Classics: Wagner’s Ring: Paul Rissmann (presenter), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Philippe Bach (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.5.2013 (SRT)

If you don’t want to go down the “bleeding chunks” route, then Wagner’s bicentenary presents most orchestras with a problem: how do you commemorate so seminal a composer whose work was almost exclusively for the opera house?  Henk de Vlieger’s orchestral transcriptions have solved this problem for some, and the RSNO have embraced his arrangements with enthusiasm (they’ve recorded all of them for Chandos).

I’ve never been entirely convinced by them, though.  Their chief virtue is that there is so much Wagner and very little of de Vlieger himself, but to my ears they tend to resemble a rather episodic cut-and-paste job.  Nor am I entirely convinced that they suit the Naked Classics treatment either, mainly because there is so much to say and so many potential avenues to explore: do you go narrative or structural, focus on leitmotives or texture?

Paul Rissmann’s manful efforts at distilling the great structure, already reduced to 70 minutes, in a suitable introduction also seemed a little episodic, as if the format was giving him a bit too much to handle in a limited time.  He did a good job with what he had, pointing out a number of leitmotivs and explaining how Wagner uses orchestral colour, as well as some amusing translations of Wagner’s German dynamic instructions, but to me it felt rather rushed and not as satisfying as his explorations of more abstract and, frankly, shorter works.

The orchestral playing was very strong, however, and there is something exhilarating about hearing this music played by so many musicians who have been liberated from the constraints of the pit.  The music seems to take wing in a whole new way, and you can hear so much of Wagner’s shading in a way that is often lost in the theatre.  The brass, in particular, showed off outstanding Wagnerian credentials, and the evening reached a radiant climax in the dawn scene of Götterdämmerung.

Naked Classics returns next season with Vaughan Williams’ and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphonies.


Simon Thompson