But not everyone I encountered on Thursday night got the proverbial memo: Say and his concertos had been replaced with a 70-minute slab of blunt force Wagner.
Fresh from two years of conducting each of the operas of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at Opernhaus Zurich (where he is general music director), maestro Gianandrea Noseda opted to smuggle some Rhinegold back to the States, filling the calendar’s blank with Lorin Maazel’s monumental compendium of orchestral highlights from Wagner’s tetralogy, “The Ring Without Words.”
Maazel’s 1987 condensation is a modern marvel of orchestral engineering, shrinking the cycle’s 16-or-so hours of music to a seamless 70-minute edit — originally conceived to fit snugly within the bounds of a single Telarc compact disc.
Remarkably, Maazel’s reduction adopts a careful, zero-waste approach to Wagner’s abundant material, adding nary a single note and managing to keep the sprawling saga’s narrative largely intact — i.e. it opens with the shimmer of “Das Rheingold” and ends with the shudder of “Götterdämmerung.” As a work of ostensible operatic blasphemy, it’s nothing if not deeply reverent.
Maazel’s isn’t the first attempt to concert-ize “The Ring.” Leopold Stokowski recorded his “Orchestral Masterpieces From the Ring of the Niebelung” with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967. And just recently, a remaster of Otto Klemperer’s own attempt at a “Ring Without Words” from the early 1960s was released.
But unique to Maazel is his knack for fine tailoring. In less skillful hands, this endeavor could have materialized as something between a hammy slide show (“Oh! Here’s us stealing the gold”) and a sloppy megamix. At their most effective, Maazel’s transitions from one episode land with the gentle fall of a turned page; at their least, they evoke the jumpy cuts of spliced film.
The NSO last performed “The Ring Without Words” in 2004, with Maazel himself conducting. Washington Post critic Tim Page (quite fairly) noted that Maazel’s potent but “serpentine” work “seemed a series of biopsies — living tissue, all of it, but isolated and abstract and perhaps a little mystifying.”
It’s this critique to which Noseda’s performance on Thursday offered a truly satisfying corrective. The abstraction and isolation invited by Maazel’s well-intended edit had, under Noseda’s hand, a lovely evenness to it — a single arc crafted from a craggy landscape of hills and valleys.
Washington audiences don’t really get to see the Wagner side of Noseda, nor his operatic side — two aspects of his career primarily reserved for his post in Zurich, where he’ll conclude his work on “The Ring” with two final full-cycle performances in May. This is a shame, especially for anyone who has lately marveled at the orchestra’s Noseda-enhanced strings and fresh gleam of the horns (led by principal Abel Pereira, and particularly dazzling on Thursday). In so many ways — endurance among them — this is an orchestra built for Wagner.
See: Principal cellist David Hardy, who led his section with thrilling momentum through every episode, and delivered especially sumptuous playing in the closing vignettes of “Das Rheingold.” Or concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, who surfaced beautifully among feathery flutes and clarinets in “Die Walküre.” The entire brass section was running at full capacity on Thursday, not least of all for the signature theme of the Valkyries, but also for a stunning richness and depth that sometimes gets lost in the Concert Hall. The wind section, too, was alive with character, and responsible for limning a lucid calm before the sudden storm of “Götterdämmerung.”
Noseda maintained a keen sense of order, and the orchestra was impressively crisp and clean — perhaps a little too clean, as any break in the action seemed to invite outbursts of hooting applause. (I’m not usually a stickler about the whole “when to applaud” question; but for this piece in particular, I recommend abstaining until the end, if only to allow Maazel’s few pauses some space to exist.)
If a quick trip to Switzerland is not within your budget, its hard to imagine another opportunity, current or forthcoming, to properly hear how Noseda handles Wagner — even if it is via the scissors of Maazel. A prolonged ovation followed the fall of the unheard gods — this “Ring Without Words” may not be enough to leave you equally speechless, but the end of the world feels just fine.
“Noseda conducts Wagner: The Ring Without Words” repeats Jan. 13 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.