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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Wozzeck (1917-1921)
Walter Berry, bar (Wozzeck); Max Lorenz, ten (Tambourmajor); Murray Dickie, ten (Andres); Peter Klein, ten (Hauptmann); Karl Dönch, bass-bar (Doctor); Harald Pröglhof, bass-bar (Erster Handwerksbursch); Marjan Rus, bar (Zweiter Handwerksbursch); William Wernigk, ten (Der Narr); Christel Goltz, sop (Marie); Polly Batic, alto (Margret).
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Karl Böhm
rec. live, Vienna State Opera Festival, 25 November 1955. Mono. DDD 2004
includes 176pp booklet and libretto
ANDANTE AN 3060 [35'44" + 60'04"]

Andante's new mastering of famous live performances aims to capture what those performances might have felt like. This gives these recordings an automatic cachet of authenticity and a kind of cult status. However, much depends on the quality of the particular performance. The skill is to choose quality performances that really are interesting in themselves, and to remaster them in ways that do them justice. The Andante series comes impressively packaged, with luxuriously bound booklets, beautifully presented. However, in this case the music does not quite match the promise. Worthy as this performance is, and worthy it is indeed, it is not an ideal first choice. Artistically it is good, but best appreciated by those who know Abbado, Boulez, Dohnanyi and even Böhm's later recording. While I'm one who listens for music, not for sound quality, in this case the sound quality is poor enough to distract not enough to ruin listening, for it would take a lot to deter a genuine listener but just enough to feel that you're listening through an artificial medium. This may have been recorded live, but it doesn't "feel" live, with the pops, crackles and occluded passages. Ultimately that defeats its own purpose.

Nonetheless, for a Wozzeck devotee, it's unmissable because it gives an insight into Karl Böhm's conception of the opera. Böhm conducted the opera in 1931 in Darmstadt, when it was fairly unfamiliar and deemed difficult. Berg himself attended and approved of Berg's treatment. Böhm was to champion the opera, performing it several times after the war, in 1951 in Salzburg and in other countries. This performance therefore may give a closer idea of what the conductor thought than his later, better known, recording in Berlin. A comparison with the Mitropoulos recording, made in the US in 1951 is also apt. The two are almost contemporary, but what different emotional worlds they inhabit. Mitropoulos manages to coax a suitably confused characterisation from his Wozzeck, Mack Harrell, but the overall impression is that the cast and orchestra were somewhat ill at ease with the strange, subversive message of the opera, hence the muddy, messy performance. No such problems with the Vienna State Opera, performing this explosive opera barely ten years after the defeat of Nazism left Europe in ruins. The concept of a world run by insane authority figures would have been only too relevant.

This isn't a pretty production. Böhm conducts with an intensity one recognises from his Wagner. It as though he connects the conjunction of love and death in the Liebestod with what happens to Wozzeck and Marie. Marie may not be an enthusiastic victim like Isolde, but there is a self-destructive streak in Christel Göltz's portrayal of Marie: she gives in to the Drum Major with a laconic "Meinetwegen, es ist Alles eins.". However, Böhm leads the orchestra towards a wild crescendo of screaming trumpets, which ends abruptly, with a shock.

Indeed, it is the orchestra that makes most impact in this production. The passages between scenes, which Berg called, suitably, "Inventions", more than simply mark the raising and lowering of curtain on stage: they are an integral part of the production. Böhm gets the orchestra to comment on the action by evoking the harsher, discordant elements. The orchestra adds a sense of rawness and unease, which must have been particularly unsettling, since the costumes (as shown in the photographs) were somewhat comical, stock figures. This approach "makes" the opera. The Schnellpolka in the village inn, for example, is maniacal, as if all were disintegrating into madness. When Wozzeck falls into the pond, the orchestra rises eerily upwards: you can almost hear the stage directions indicating a red glow of light. The trumpets and horns here are particularly expressive, slightly bent and off-key. The children's chorus is loud and vivid, somewhat too cheerful perhaps but that increases the surrealism of the scene.

Walter Berry is an excellent Wozzeck, young and fresh-sounding, very convincing in an unflattering, anti-hero role. I was less impressed with Peter Klein as the Captain and Karl Dönch as Doctor. Both are well sung, but lacking that extra edge of barely concealed hysteria we are so used to these days. The minor role of Margret, sung by Polly Batic, is surprisingly well done.

In all, this is an important addition to the Wozzeck discography, but one for study rather than for its own sake. There are clearer and more acute performances, though many might prefer Böhm's harsher, starker interpretation here to his later version. The booklet looks like great packaging for marketing impact, but is cumbersome to use and the use of large font quotes is distracting. I found myself referring to simpler, more precise librettos.


Anne Ozorio


Also of Interest?


BERG Lulu (live from the Vienna State Opera Festival, 16 December 1968): Anja Silja (Lulu), Gerd Nienstedt (Der Tierbandiger), Ernst Gutstein (Dr Schon), Waldemar Kmentt (Alwa Schön), William Blankenship (Der Maler), Hans Brand (Der Medizinalrat), Hans Hotter (Schigolch), Manfred Jungwirth (Der Theaterdirektor), Hilde Konetzni (Garderobiere), Mario Guggia (Der Prinz), Martha Mödl (Grafin Geschwitz), Oskar Czerwenka (Rodrigo, Athlet), Rohangiz Yachmi (Der Gymnasiast), Heinz Zednik (Ein Kammerdiener), Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Karl Bohm (conductor) ANDANTE AN3050 (2-CD) (mono)

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