Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Wozzeck (1922) [1:35:45]
Lulu-Suite (1935) [34:00]
Wozzeck – Bo Skovhus (baritone)
Drum Major – Jan Blinkhof (tenor)
Andres - Jürgen Sacher (tenor)
Captain – Chris Merritt (tenor)
Doctor – Frode Olsen (bass)
Marie – Angela Denoke (soprano)
Konrad Rupf (bass), Kay Stiefermann (tenor), Frieder Stricker (tenor), Renate Spingler (soprano), Findlay A. Johnstone (baritone)
Hamburg State Opera Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher (Wozzeck)
Arleen Auger (soprano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle (Lulu-Suite)
rec. live, September-October 1998, Hamburg State Opera (Wozzeck); December 1987, Butterworth Hall, University of Warwick, UK (Lulu-Suite)
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 40662 2 [72:11 + 58:08 + CD ROM]

In the five scenes that make up Act 1 of this extraordinary opera we meet each of the main protagonists. The Captain is suitably manic in Scene 1, quite free with the notes as is often the case in a live stage performance. Is his portrayal rather one-sided? There’s not much opportunity for character development as yet, but is there not more to the captain than this constant hectoring? And Wozzeck himself seems already well on the way to mental breakdown. How much further can he go? The pacing is superb and the orchestra plays magnificently. In Scene 2, Wozzeck’s friend Andres might be a calming influence, but he will have his work cut out as Wozzeck is by now clearly deranged. Andres himself seems far from normal in this opera where few are normal, but the sublime Fritz Wunderlich, in the old DG recording conducted by Karl Böhm, also made something simple and childlike of him. The stage acoustic at the beginning of Scene 3 gives some strange perspectives to the voices of Marie – who is meant to be singing from an upstairs window – and her disgusting friend Margret, who is in the street. The offstage band, though, is just right. Marie sings most beautifully the lullaby to the child she and Wozzeck have produced together, though the preceding exchange with Margret lacks some ferocity. The similarity between the voices of Wozzeck and Frode Olsen as the Doctor leads to some confusion in Scene 4, where you need to know the opera pretty well to be sure who is speaking. The fact that each character seems as disjointed as the other doesn’t help, nor does the absurd decision to make the libretto available only on a third CD. In the fifth scene, the shortest of the five, Marie submits to the Drum Major. Once again the orchestra shines, the concluding postlude leaving us in no doubt that as she leads him into her house she is sealing her fate. The closing orchestral gesture, though, gradually turning into a trill, is strangely weak.

Sprechgesang is difficult to bring off convincingly, and it always seems to me that those performances where the singers stick closer to Berg’s written notes are the ones in which the characters are most subtly drawn and complex. Reaching the furthest points in the house is easier when singing than when speaking, and rather too much of the time the performers here lapse into effortful ranting, a characteristic also of Leif Erikson’s live performance on Naxos.

The impressions gained in Act 1 are confirmed in Act 2. The orchestra is superbly eloquent at the touching moment when Wozzeck gives Marie some money in the first scene, and the second, when the Captain and the Doctor meet in the street and discuss the state of the Captain’s health is biting and dramatic, the very essence of what live performance should be, though many of Berg’s notes go by the board. In the third scene we realise that amongst the confusion of his feelings for Marie, there is no room for tenderness in the mind of this particular Wozzeck. Perhaps he is too far gone, and already was before the opera began. Curiously, for a live performance, the atmosphere of the inn in Scene 4 is not particularly potent, as it certainly is in Dohnányi’s studio performance, though the moment when the Idiot smells blood must have been hair-raising on the night. I have vivid memories of Sir Geraint Evans as Wozzeck at Covent Garden, singing in English. His final words in this second act, after his fight with his rival the Drum Major, “One after the other”, were a heartbreaking mixture of resignation and defeat. Bo Skovhus sounds brusque and irritated.

The tragedy is dramatically played out in Act 3. Angela Denoke is most affecting as Marie reads from the Bible at the beginning of the act. In the second scene, where Wozzeck is usually portrayed as teetering on the brink of madness, Skovhus plays him saner than at any moment hitherto, his allusions and veiled threats to Marie – and indeed the ensuing murder – seemingly calculated. The famous long crescendo on the note B is superbly sustained by Metzmacher and the orchestra. When Wozzeck returns to the lake to search for the knife the hectoring quality of Skovhus’ delivery makes for a less moving dénouement than usual. One simply feels less sorry for him. The Doctor and Captain overact wildly as they pass by, and the amplification of the children’s voices diminishes the horror of the extraordinary final scene.

Wozzeck is a masterpiece, but even now the public are more willing to flock to another Trovatore. This is a very fine performance indeed, but its super-charged energy, combined with a free approach to Sprechgesang, make for a version which is less likely than some to convert newcomers to the cause. Claudio Abbado’s live performance on DG is very refined, but the balance between voices and orchestra is less than perfect and there is a fair amount of stage noise. In the present set, unwanted noise is almost entirely absent. Like Abbado, Christoph von Dohnányi (Decca) has the Vienna Philharmonic in front of him, so there’s little surprise at the sheer beauty of the sound. I find Eberhard Waechter a rather monochrome Wozzeck, but overall this is a better bet for those who don’t already know the opera. I’d like to make a plea, though, for one of the earliest versions, conducted by Karl Böhm (review). On disc this is only available in tandem with the same conductor’s reading of the unfinished version of Lulu, though downloaders will find it available separately. I don’t think any other reading places Berg’s music so firmly in the line following Mahler, so some of the shock value is downplayed. Wozzeck is played by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, more sympathetic, even noble, than in any other reading. This may not be authentic, but it is certainly very compelling.

This performance of Wozzeck was first issued without a coupling, but now comes in harness with the five extracts from Lulu that Berg arranged into a suite the year before his death. The performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Arleen Auger and Simon Rattle, is masterly. The booklet contains a track-list, a cast list and a synopsis in three languages. Then you have the “bonus disc”, a third CD containing what appears to be the original CD booklet in pdf form, in other words, trilingual essays, synopses and libretti – but no mention of the coupling – all available on your computer screen.

William Hedley

Wozzeck live from Hamburg, highly dramatic, but perhaps not the whole story.