The Ring Without Words
Hong Kong Philharmonic Cultural Centre Concert Hall Reviewed: November 2
In the 1980s, conductor Lorin Maazel was asked by record label Telarc International to condense Das Ring des Nibelungen - Richard Wagner's 17-hour, four-opera epic - into a 70-minute symphonic fantasy. Having expertly pared all the best-known musical meat from the drama's bones, The Ring Without Words plays without a break, pitching from climax to climax with intelligently paced doses of adrenaline.
From the swell of the River Rhine to clanking dwarves, a ride through the air with the Valkyries and a quick bathe in the magic fire music (that's the first 25 minutes), it's a roller-coaster ride that perplexes many listeners; they accept it may bring the humdinger parts of the masterpiece closer to the masses, but compare it with slicing off half of Mount Everest to allow the less fit to think they've reached the summit.
For all that, it can be an enjoyable indulgence if delivered with aplomb by the orchestra. With Maazel himself at the helm, the interpretation was guaranteed to be definitive, which put the spotlight squarely on the Hong Kong Philharmonic to produce an unfailingly beautiful sound and a dramatically convincing atmosphere.
Laurels first go to the entire orchestra for their stamina, especially the brass section, whose lips must have been tingling by the end of the work's sustained demand for burnished sound and crack delivery. Solos from the principal players across all departments were uniformly handled with taste and skill, and all players needed to continuously live for the moment before flowing to the next, with no recourse to cheap shots such as excesses in speeds and dynamics as a crutch. They met the challenge magnificently.
Conducting from memory and supporting himself with his left hand on the podium rail for most of the performance, Maazel (below) and his minimal baton gestures were watched like a hawk, and players caught the restrained nuances perfectly. They moved as a single body in shading dynamics and speeds while handling the attack and release of melodic lines impressively. Sam Olluver