DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

WAGNER: The Ring Without Words, Blu-ray (2000/2012)

A terrific solution for those of us who can't stand the Wagnerian bellowing.

Published on November 6, 2012

WAGNER: The Ring Without Words, Blu-ray (2000/2012)

Performers: Berlin Philharmonic/ Lorin Maazel (who also arr. the Symphonic Synthesis)
Continuous instrumental score of music from all four operas of The Ring Cycle
Studio: EuroArts 2057607 [9/25/12] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1, PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Chinese
All regions code
Extras: Short interview with Maazel on the score
Length: 83 min.; interview – 5:00
Rating: ****

I recently saw the John Cage experimental film which compresses the whole of the Ring Cycle operas into 4:24 of film, and this Symphonic Synthesis created by Lorin Maazel using only Wagner’s actual music for The Ring runs about 75 minutes. Together—and along with a really simple and understandable summary of the entire plot in the note booklet—I now feel I have experienced The Ring, and never mind the singing. I guess I’m in Robert Schumann’s camp, who said he found instrumental music far superior to vocal music. I don’t really dislike Wagner after all, just the singing.

Doing all-instrumental Rings is not new. Maazel was asked three times by Telarc Records to prepare a 75-minute all-instrumental version of The Ring, and the third time he accepted, with the result being a 1998 Telarc standard CD with the same title, and Maazal also conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra did a similar recording in 1990 titled “Wagner Without Words” for Sony, because in addition to the music from the four operas, it also included music from Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde. Don’t know why it took this long to release this 2000 video with the Berlin Philharmonic.

This Blu-ray is a most compelling instrumental Readers Digest version of The Ring. It could serve as an introduction to the entire thing (though not in my case, thank you). There are no pauses anywhere in the work, you must follow the note booklet’s layout of the 21 sections of the work, and follow the display on your disc player to see exactly where you are in each opera—they all follow in chronological order. (I need opera glasses to do that with my Oppo deck.)  Some viewers have felt it would be useful to have titles on the screen telling you where you are musically, but I think this arrangement is better.

This is, after all, the Berlin Philharmonic, and boy do they know their Wagner. The lossless surround sonics are of course way ahead of the standard CDs mentioned above, and strangely the Blu-ray is even cheaper on Amazon!  The images are amazingly hi-res: one can see tiny fluff on suit jackets and moles on musician’s necks. And great camera work. There are quite a few closeups of Maazel, and while he’s not the most watchable conductor in the world, they seem well-timed and appropriate. One amazing bit in the music for Das Rheingold is when Maazel nearly jumps off the podium to cue a percussionist with a giant wood hammer – really giant – to hit a big wood block. The notes are plenty interesting too: They discuss Wieland Wagner’s switch to minimalist/symbolic productions of The Ring following WWII (the Blu-ray’s cover certainly fits this), and mention his family’s close ties with the Nazis during the war. In fact, the young Wieland personally called Hitler “Uncle Wolf.”

—John Sunier




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