Many conductors lead concert programs featuring the standard orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, but Lorin Maazel went much further with his symphonic synthesis "The Ring Without Words."
Maazel assembled this 70-minute distillation of Wagner's four-opera, 17-hour cycle at the request of Telarc Records, which recorded it in 1987 with the conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic. More than a one-off project, it has taken on a life of its own: Maazel has performed it in New York with the Pittsburgh Symphony (in 1990) and the New York Philharmonic (during his days as music director, in 2000 and 2008). For this concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Maazel is pairing his whittled-down 'Ring' with a pinnacle of Viennese classicism: Mozart's Symphony No. 40.
In his notes for the Telarc recording, Maazel expressed the hope that his labors might "bring some of the magic of this monumental work a mite closer ... to a new audience of music-sensitive people." Certainly, removing the vocal parts from Wagner is asking for a fight — and some listeners have taken issue with Maazel's "cut and paste" approach. Still, former New York Times chief classical music critic Donal Henahan took a less purist view in 1990, arguing that "there is good musical logic for preferring such a treatment over the ill-assorted chunks of Wagner that make up most orchestral programs."
"The Ring Without Words" is also a fantastic playground for a virtuoso orchestra, and this is where the Vienna Philharmonic comes into the picture. This group has a 170-year heritage and an intimate association with some of classical music's most revered repertoire. Tradition is serious business in the orchestra. It has one of the world's most glorious musical homes, the gilded Musikverein in the Austrian capital. The orchestra takes no chances with its distinctively warm sound, going so far as to have extra violins hanging on some stands, just in case a string breaks.
The self-governing ensemble's supposed stubbornness in maintaining an unbroken link with its history has also brought into focus its hiring policies over the years. In 1997, after international protests and negative media coverage, the orchestra ended its policy of excluding women from its ranks. The orchestra's critics and its supporters continue to debate whether equality has since been achieved quickly enough, a complex issue that can't be given due justice in this space. (For those keeping score, of 130 full-fledged members of the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra says there are currently eight women in its ranks; six are permanent members and two are in a probationary hiring period.)
If one thing is for certain, however, it is that Vienna continues to promote its brand around the globe. This season, the musicians are touring four continents (plus a summer cruise in the Baltic Sea), and they began 2012 with a broadcast of their famous New Year's Concert in more than 70 countries around the world. This week, Sony Music, which released the recording of that concert, announced it had sold more than 150,000 units, going double platinum in Austria and hitting the pop charts in France.