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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Wozzeck (1917-1922) [97:52]
Wozzeck Roman Trekel (baritone)
Marie Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Captain Marc Molomot (tenor)
Doctor Nathan Berg (bass-baritone)
Drum-major Gordon Gietz (tenor)
Andres Robert McPherson (tenor)
Margret Katherine Ciesinski (mezzo-soprano)
First Apprentice Calvin Griffin (bass-baritone)
Second Apprentice Samuel Schulz (baritone)
Madman Brenton Ryan (tenor)
Members of Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus. Deutsche Samstagsschule Houston, Chorus Students and Alumni, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, Houston Symphony/Hans Graf
rec. live in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, USA
NAXOS 8.660390-91 [36:22 & 61:30]

Alban Berg’s disturbing expressionist adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, is one of the key works of 20th century music and music-theatre. It always impresses me how rigorously Berg applied aspects of 12-note serial composition, yet still managed to create an opera of searing emotional intensity and dramatic power. Anyone who has come to terms with Mahler ought, in all honesty, to have no real difficulty with the idiom of the piece, though an audio recording will always struggle to convey its full force. I recall the first time I experienced it ‘live’, and found myself simply overwhelmed by the tragedy and pathos of it.

But that is not to say that a good recording cannot capture any of the work’s character, and of course it has the advantage of enabling one to concentrate more on Berg’s amazing score, with its teeming orchestration and complex network of relevant and related themes.

So this new Naxos recording is emphatically worth hearing. It has a lyrical Wozzeck in the person of Roman Trekel, and some sharply characterised lesser roles, such as Katherine Ciesinski as Margret and Marc Molomot as the Captain. Gordon Gietz, though, as the priapic Drum-Major, is underpowered, and can’t quite convey the overweening vanity and violence of his character. The recording is at fault, too, in the scene when Marie and Margret first clap eyes on the Drum-Major as he marches past at the head of the military band. The band is supposed to be heard in the distance (Berg correctly observed that the bass drum is the first thing you can perceive) and then come close by. But the band here remains almost inaudible, virtually out of earshot, spoiling one of the work’s best theatrical moments.
There are other balance problems; another wonderful effect, the chorus of snoring soldiers (it’s true!) fails to register properly because it’s too ‘off-mic’, and the male voices, including Wozzeck himself, struggle to make themselves heard against the orchestra. This is a great pity, especially when it affects a brilliant cameo like Brenton Ryan’s ‘Narr’ (the ‘Madman’ or, better ‘Idiot’); we strain to hear the nuances of his singing because he is not quite placed forward enough.

The women are easier to hear; Marie’s friend Margret is wonderfully vulgar, and gives a memorably spiteful version of her song in Act 3. But there’s no doubting the star of this recording; Anne Schwanewilms, the German soprano, is simply sensational as Marie. She conveys the woman’s tortured moral sense, her sensuality, but also her essential dignity and vulnerability. She also sings the notes; she actually sings the notes! By this I mean that Berg writes vocal lines which are quite staggeringly difficult to sing. Most singers are grateful for the ‘Sprechstimme’ (speech-voice) notion that effectively gives one licence to be near the note if not exactly on it, as long as one captures the essential character of a musical phrase. But this wonderful singer clearly has a faultless sense of pitch; and in singing the music accurately, she misses nothing of its visceral impact (she misses one tiny phrase in Act 3 – or it’s been edited out – but I think we can forgive her!). It may be a cliché, but it genuinely is worth the price of this disc many times over just to hear her sing this role.

The other stars are the conductor, Hans Graf, who manages to pace the whole work unerringly, and brings it to a shattering climax with the great final orchestral interlude, where the drowning Wozzeck’s life flashes musically through his mind; and also the Houston Symphony themselves, who play this torturously challenging score if not with ease, then with total commitment and understanding.

There are numerous fine recordings of this great masterpiece, both audio and video; I still hanker after the Karl Böhm DG set from 1965, with Fischer-Dieskau and Evelyn Lear mesmerising in the principal roles. And I would also recommend the remarkable 1970 film, with Sena Jurinac and Toni Blankenheim; controversial but still convincing.

But this is unquestionably a worthy addition to the library; a powerful overall achievement, including one truly great performance.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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