> Alban Berg - Wozzeck [TH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
WOZZECK Opera in Three Acts Op.7

Wozzeck ~ Carl Johan Falkman
Marie ~ Katarina Dalayman
Captain ~ Ulrik Qvale
Doctor ~ Sten Wahlund
Drum Major ~ Lennart Stregard
Andres ~ Klas Hedlund
Margret ~ Marianne Eklof
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera, Stockholm
Leif Segerstam (conductor)
Recorded live at Kungliga Teatern, Stockholm, February 2000
NAXOS 8.660076-77 [2 discs: 37:22; 58:41; super-budget]


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On the face of it, this is something rather special; a new digital recording of an important 20th Century landmark theatre piece, with a young, highly intelligent cast, an internationally known conductor and all for under a tenner. But Wozzeck is an opera that has been remarkably lucky on record and the competition is very stiff. Of the current available crop, the full price frontrunners are Abbado on DG, Barenboim on Teldec, and my own personal favourite, Dohnanyi on a spectacularly well recorded Decca set. Of these, both Abbado and Barenboim are live and have no fill-up (a serious consideration, as Wozzeck is a relatively short piece), whilst Dohnanyi is studio and has a mesmerising performance of the logical coupling, Schoenberg’s Erwartung. In the mid-price area the competition is in many ways even stiffer, with Böhm’s classic DG account now coupled with the ‘original’ two act version of Lulu, whilst Sony Classical have done us all a great service by re-issuing Mitropoulos’s blistering 1951 live concert performance (in good mono, coupled not only with another Erwartung, but a valuable rarity, Krenek’s Symphonic Elegy). And if all this is not enough, EMI also have a worthy contender at mid-price, Ingo Metzmacher’s live digital recording from Hamburg (alas with no fill-up). So the newcomer, cheap but live and with no coupling, will have to be pretty good to hold its own. I’m glad to report that, certainly on initial acquaintance, it should do rather well.

For a start, the pacing of the score and a real attention to detail immediately mark this version out. It is apparent from those amazing opening bars that Segerstam (himself a composer of note) has drilled his forces into what must be one of the most accurate readings of Berg’s Expressionist masterpiece on disc. There is of course, as with all the live versions, some attendant stage noise, but for the most part this is more than outweighed by the palpable tension and real sense of characterisation that only come when the singer is ‘living’ the part. Segerstam has been criticised in the past for some rather wilful and eccentric recordings (including some of his Sibelius), but I find this Wozzeck wholly convincing. Particularly important in this opera is the pacing of the crucial interludes; Berg was very specific about the timing of these and although none of the other conductors really get it wrong, Segerstam is spot on. He understands their function in the structure and allows the important themes to emerge with crystal clarity. Yes, the orchestral texture is rather biased towards the wind and brass, rather than being ‘top-heavy’ with strings (something that bothered Michael Oliver in his otherwise rave Gramophone review), but in fact so much of the main material is distributed in this way that one hears much of the score afresh. Even the great Mahlerian D minor interlude that effectively sums up the opera is none the worse (to my ears) for not being the usual wash of string tone. So full marks for the contribution from the pit; what about the singing?

I suppose the first thing that struck me was that I had never heard the opera actually sung so well; with ‘sprechtstimme’ (half-way between speech and singing) littering the score, it’s very easy to lapse into virtually speaking the parts, and some notable Wozzecks (including the gruff but effective Eberhardt Waechter for Dohnanyi) are slightly guilty of this. Yes, one needs to observe Berg’s (admittedly ambiguous) markings, but to hear the soaring melodic lines in all their glory is satisfying. There appears to be no over-acting or lapse into caricature here either (even Fischer-Dieskau for Böhm rather hams it up in places), so one is all the more moved by the pathetic plight of the main protagonists. As Wozzeck and Marie (the ‘harlot with a heart’, as Bernstein put it), Carl-Johan Falkman and Katarina Dalayman are altogether outstanding. His portrayal is gripping, with his descent into madness and murder truly convincing. His heartfelt cry of ‘wie arme Leut’ (we poor folk), that becomes a motto for the oppressed everywhere, is all the more moving for being sung rather than barked, and the final tavern scene, where Margret spots the blood on his arm, provokes a terrifyingly real response. Dalayman’s portrait of Marie as a woman driven to extremes of her own is just as truthful. She is powerless to act any other way, even when she knows it’s wrong and will have dire consequences. Listen to her cry to the Drum Major of "Meinet wegen, es ist Alles eins" (have your way then, it is all the same) that ends Act One; resignation, despair, defiance, anger, the whole gamut of emotion in one line.

The other roles are given equally sharp and intelligent assumptions. Ulrik Qvale as the Captain excels at being both cruelly manipulative to Wozzeck, as well acting like a childish coward; his scene with the Doctor is a good example of this balancing act, where the difficult falsetto passages, that can sound too comical, are here just the right side of grotesque. Lennart Stregard is equally convincing as the Doctor, as mad as Wozzeck in his own way, dreaming of fame for his ‘researches’. Klas Hedlund braves the high tessitura of Andres’s part reasonably well, though it’s difficult to get the great Fritz Wunderlich (for Boehm) out of one’s head here. I couldn’t seriously quibble with any of the other minor character portrayals, and the chorus is as well drilled as the orchestra.

The engineers have coped pretty well with the difficulties of live opera recording, giving a fairly forward balance to the voices. This may bother some more than me; if you prefer a more equal balance, then Dohnanyi’s Decca version (with a superb Anja Silja) is very hard to beat. But this multi-layered score can take different approaches, and it’s no exaggeration to say you will hear many new details in this new recording. As is usual with Naxos Opera, there is a full text in original language only (no translation), but a detailed scene by scene synopsis with cue points, so following the plot is reasonably straightforward. Booklet notes by the ever-reliable Keith Anderson cover most things of interest.

Repeated listening has strengthened my admiration for this performance, and I think it is fair to conclude that this set is worth purchasing regardless of your current favourite. Stage noise is less intrusive than Abbado’s, (the booklet suggests it was a fairly minimalist production), and the quality of singing and playing is consistently high. A worthy addition to the growing Wozzeck discography.

Tony Haywood

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