Delightfully nasty P.S. to Wagner's Ring cycle

Colin Currie, Philadelphia Orchestra
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Sagas are made for sequels.

But whoever thought Wagner's 16-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen would have a loud, delightfully nasty concerto for a postscript? American composer Christopher Rouse gave the opera's villain Alberich the last word in the form of a percussion/orchestra work that he calls a "fantasy," reflecting the piece's freewheeling lack of usual concerto formality.

Played Friday by the Philadelphia Orchestra with guest percussionist Colin Currie, Der gerettete Alberich (Alberich Saved) was a bit of a hit - and perhaps not just because this is a Wagner-starved town. Even if it's not among my favorite Rouse pieces, it displays his ever-engaging personality, with intense, eerie stillness followed by explosions seemingly inspired by Led Zeppelin, whose late drummer John Bonham cast a welcome shadow over the piece.

With the soloist treated as a quasi-theatrical protagonist, Currie made a stagy entrance, dressed in black and cutting a sleek figure, after the piece had started; later, he snatched guest conductor Andrey Boreyko's baton to use on one of many percussion instruments.

Though said not to have a specific narrative, the one-movement piece feels like a two-part portrayal of the love-starved dwarf who steals the Rhine Maidens' gold after they mock his advances. At first, it's heavy on Wagner quotations in something close to their original orchestrations, progressing toward a near-death experience for the soloist with a quiet, long-held note from the orchestra suggesting a possible path to the hereafter.

Then, after the Bonham-like cadenza suggesting a resurrection, the second half has the percussionist dominating the orchestra, rather than just interacting with it. The Wagner quotes are still there - especially the music Alberich sings when he renounces love for gold - but they're twisted around, Alberich-like, firsthand expressions of the character rather than an outside observation of him. It's as if he finally nabbed the ring that will let him rule the world - and is ruling it.

The 1997 piece was initially championed by Evelyn Glennie (who played it here in 1998), but Currie is a worthy successor, especially given his precise ear for sound even in the most bombastic moments. Comparing the piece on recordings and performed live, the tactile quality of the instruments made the experience much more rich. The orchestra stuck to him every step of the way.

Rouse was followed by Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 - no-lose programming given that this piece has been at the core of the orchestra's repertoire forever. But Boreyko yet again turned in the sort of measured, controlled performance that made you wonder if he was German rather than Russian.

One wants to like him: He is dashing, assured, and has orchestras in places I like (Bern) and respect (Düsseldorf). But Wolfgang Sawallisch showed how Germanic, middle-of-the-road Tchaikovsky could be far more interesting than this. One of the symphony's hallmarks is its beautifully calculated peaks and valleys. With Boreyko, the valleys were deep and lacked fresh air. The orchestra played well but dutifully.