Plundering orchestral music from Wagner’s operas is nothing new. In 1935 Donald Tovey wrote of “bleeding chunks of butcher's meat” served up as prime cuts in ‘Wagner night’ concert programmes. For the gramophone, conductor Leopold Stokowski created “symphonic syntheses” of operas such as Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, weaving together themes, replacing voices with instruments. In the 1980s Lorin Maazel was approached by his record label Telarc to forge The Ring Without Words to exploit the extended playing time of that new medium, the compact disc, condensing the 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen down to 70 orchestral minutes.

Principal double bass, Tom Gibbs
© Camilla Greenwell

“One Ring to shrink them all,” was how The New York Times pithily called it and last night Santtu-Mathias Rouvali enthusiastically took up Maazel’s baton. Starting in the murky depths of the Rhine and ending in the conflagration that engulfs Valhalla, Rouvali drove the Philharmonia through this Wagnerian odyssey with obvious relish. It wasn’t always a smooth ride – soggy tuning marred the horns emerging from the double basses’ pedal E flat at the start and there were a few queasy lurches when Rouvali applied the brakes too heavily – but there were thrills aplenty. 

Maazel’s pocket-sized arrangement does what it says on the tin, taking the orchestral highlights from The Ring and stitching them together in chronological order. His sewing is mostly seamless and some of the joins are cleverly disguised: Donner’s thunder in Rheingold propels us straight into Walküre’s opening storm; during the Magic Fire Music, Fafner the dragon’s grumbles and groans are heard on Wagner tubas, leading the way into Siegfried’s forging scene. With three long purple patches – Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March and the Immolation Scene – about half of the score is reserved for Götterdämmerung alone. 

It was a strong night for the lower instruments. The Philharmonia’s double basses were in fine fettle, rasping away in the storm, while the heavy artillery brass thundered through The Ride of the Valkyries. And the “steerhorn” – here a narrow-bore, slideless trombone – sounded when Hagen summons his vassals, caused a mighty racket. The orchestra had also seemingly co-opted every percussionist in London with 15 players hammering their anvils from off-stage in the Green Bar (it’s thirsty work in Nibelheim, but at least they got to knock off early). Wagner’s quieter moments came off well, Samuel Coles (flute) and Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) twittering softly in Forest Murmurs, while a trio of clarinets stood in for the absent Rhinemaidens.

Miah Persson
© Reka Choy

But we did get to hear a soprano. As if to taunt us for the lack of voices in the Wagner later on, the concert opened with a ravishing account of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs by Miah Persson. Her tone was golden, her phrasing honeyed as she soared in Beim Schlafengehen, matched by Benjamin Marquise Gilmore’s tender violin solo. She made much of the text, perfectly capturing the wistful nature of Im Abendrot. With a beatific smile, Persson’s serene stage presence was in marked contrast to Rouvali’s hyperactive conducting. She was occasionally swamped by the strings but, by and large, the orchestra’s support was sensitive, particularly Diego Incertis Sánchez’ burnished horn postlude in September