November sees the release of Siegfried, part of the ongoing Naxos recording of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle. For this month’s blogs, we go behind the scenes of the finished product to meet some of the orchestral players involved in the project. We asked Natalie Lewis, a former member of the orchestra, to strike up the conversations.
“In my 10 November blog we caught up with Jing Wang, concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Jing spoke about his role and what it’s like to lead an orchestra through the four massive music dramas that comprise Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka The Ring Cycle. For this week’s post, I followed up with chats to two other members of the Hong Kong Phil to see what they had to say about their release of the cycle’s third instalment, Siegfried, and learn if there’s anything we should know that might enhance our listening experience.
First, I turned to Lorenzo Iosco, currently in Beijing for performances of Die Walküre for the Beijing Arts Festival. Prior to joining the Hong Kong Phil as principal bass clarinet, Lorenzo was in the London Symphony Orchestra for six years, and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House of Madrid for three. Make no mistake about it, this guy plays a mean bass clarinet. During the year we overlapped in Hong Kong, I got to know this incredible musician and all-around nice guy, and I’m proud to say that I invited Lorenzo on his first ever junk boat trip (Hong Kong Junk Boat = boat party), where he had to bear witness to my emotional goodbyes to friends, colleagues and the city of Hong Kong.”
Wagner often uses the clarinet to imitate birdcalls. But the bass clarinet is used quite differently. Can you describe the character of the bass clarinet in these operas?
LI: Wagner was one of the first composers who used the bass clarinet, not only to enrich the orchestra’s sound and colour with long bass notes, but also to feature as a more soloistic and independent instrument. With the beautiful, extensive melodies, the bass clarinet was thus given a bigger role. Wagner was especially fascinated by the darkness and depth of the instrument, which often represents sadness and melancholy in his operas.
In my entire orchestral career, your solo in the second Ring opera, Walküre, is probably one of the biggest (and longest) bass clarinet solos I have ever heard. True or false?
LI: Walküre, together with another of Wagner’s operas, Tristan and Isolde, are two of the most important operas for the bass clarinet repertoire. In Walküre, the bass clarinet is constantly present, strengthening the content and the vocal melody, while at the same time keeping the atmosphere gloomy and melancholic. I’m always fascinated by how knowledgeable Wagner was about this instrument, managing all the registers and being very certain about the kind of sound needed. He was indeed a real connoisseur of the instrument.
What is the best advice you can give to a Wagner-curious listener approaching this recording for the first time?
LI: Before starting to listen to Wagner’s operas, I would first suggest reading as much as possible about Norse mythology, written in the Völsunga saga and the Poetic Edda. It is important to enter this mythological world if you want to better understand the operas and Wagner’s music. Then, if you are a musician, I would also suggest following the opera with a score. You will be impressed by the complexity of his composing and the number of instruments involved.“Another prominent member of my farewell junk boat entourage was my good friend, Aziz D. Barnard Luce. Aziz is the principal percussionist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He is often seen running around the back half of the stage (or even off-stage) to reach the various percussion instruments. He probably gets more exercise than anyone in the orchestra, including the conductor!”
What do you think people need to know in order to both listen to and appreciate this music?
ABL: There certainly is a lot to take in. I would encourage any listener to familiarise themselves with the plot of the Ring Cycle. The mythical source material is, of course, also used by Tolkien, Marvel and Star Wars. But the plot is essential; the characters make the story, and the music makes the characters.
There’s a lot going on, specifically for percussion. Let’s talk anvils.
ABL: The percussionist plays an elemental role in these Wagner works. The gleam of light off the Ring. The strike of a forging hammer. The hammer of the gods. Lightning strikes. Fire music. Flying music. The obvious example in Siegfried is the use of anvils during the forging song, sung by Siegfried as he reforges the sword, Nothung. Wagner employs a mythical trope; people capturing the divine element of fire and using it to bring their will to pass, as a god would. In Siegfried, Wagner has the young hero of the title singing a carefree song as he melts and reforges his father’s shattered sword using a great fire. Wagner also uses a lot of timpani, often to set the mood. Fate calling is sometimes portrayed by timpani in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
You’re getting ready to wrap things up in January with Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera in the Ring Cycle. Can you tell us what we can look forward to in this final chapter?
ABL: In Götterdämmerung, all the themes from the cycle come together, and it is difficult to resist. But the gods are…well…“dämmerunged”, meaning the percussion writing is slightly less elemental. In fact, there is little percussion until another elemental force (death) comes for the heroes. But as we learn new secrets about the gods, and the heroes face new challenges, Wagner ties all the strings of music together. This is perhaps the most beautiful opera in the Ring Cycle, and amongst Wagner’s best works. But don’t take my word for it. Hear it for yourself!
“Before we wrap things up, I would be remiss if I didn’t give one last shout-out to my buddy and principal horn of the HK Phil, Lin Jiang. This guy has a huge solo (performed offstage) that is impossible to miss in Act II, Scene 2 of Siegfried. I can’t wait to hear how it turned out for this epic new release.”