This Wozzeck was a retirement gift from the Houston Symphony to its Music Director of 12 years’ standing, Hans Graf. They gave a pair of concert performances with minimal staging apparatus: there is no trace here of the stage noise on recordings conducted by Abbado (DG, 2/89) and, in particular, Segerstam (Naxos, 3/02); or indeed of the audience, except insofar as the performance as recorded conveys a palpable sense of storytelling.
Graf himself acted as producer. The singers are close-miked, but so are the instrumental soloists, and the perspective only moves back a fraction for the orchestral interludes, which here serve to pull tight the threads between each scene. The extra rehearsals demanded by such an undertaking have been rewarded by one of the finest Wozzecks on record, orchestrally speaking: whether massed for the interludes or fragmented mid-scene, the players don’t miss a trick, unless it be the last nuances of deracinated dance-metres concentrated on Act 2. The string bass sound is full and threatening where necessary, and the fruity-toned first clarinet cuts through the scene in the pub with great style.
The most memorable vocal impression is left by Anne Schwanewilms, who brings distinct and theatrical ideas about Marie to the concert platform. While never as liberal as Isabel Strauss for Boulez in Paris, Schwanewilms makes free with Berg’s notation to mark strong contrasts between Sprechgesang and a soaring, lyric (if by now slightly frayed) soprano to create a woman well capable of standing up for herself, neither giving nor demanding pity: to pluck out a contemporary comparison, more of a Dyer’s Wife than the Empress she embodied so thrillingly for Christof Loy’s Salzburg Festival production of Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Schwanewilms’s portrayal would be less out of scale opposite a husband more monstrous than Roman Trekel. This Wozzeck is more sung, and evenly so, than most rivals on record; he travels through scenes like a noble savage, roused to fearful but always musical rage by the taunting of his superiors and jealousy of his wife. Much of the opera’s action takes place in the open, in public settings where the two central characters air their dirty laundry; Trekel’s moody restraint is all the more effective in such scenes.
The supporting cast is strong, though Nathan Berg (the Doctor) and Katherine Ciesinski (luxury casting in the tiny role of Margret) stand out as vividly drawn, uncaricatured vocal actors. Abbado in Vienna may be irreplaceable, but Graf could hardly have left a more dedicated testament of his commitment to the opera and to his work in Houston.