Berg Wozzeck;Schoenberg Erwartung
The first ever recording of Wozzeck was made at a couple of concert performances in New York conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos (Philips mono—nla). It seemed at the time an appallingly risky thing to do, but although it was an untidy performance, with mostly dull singing and fistfuls of wrong notes, it had a fiery eloquence and a fidelity to the spirit of Berg's score that have seldom been approached since. Subsequent recordings have been more accurate, on the whole, and have captured individual performances of great distinction, but they have tended in the grooming process to diminish the opera's pain and ferocity, and few of them have had much sense of the stage.
Abbado's new live recording has plenty of this latter quality. We hear it from the front row of the stalls, with a theatrical rather than a studio balance between singers and orchestra, and the sense of a real stage with real action taking place upon it is very strong: the placing and movement of the military band in Act 1 scene 3 is pretty well ideal; so are the two crowded inn-scenes. More important still, one is aware that this is a genuine performance, not a studio replica of one. A tiny example is the way that Behrens's voice momentarily breaks with pity and guilt as Marie thanks Wozzeck for giving her his wages: it is a spur-of-the-moment thing, even an involuntary one, and certainly not premeditated; it is over in a second, but it adds a poignantly graphic stroke to her portrayal. The touch of Viennese schmalz that comes over Grundheber's Wozzeck when he says what he would do ''if I were a gentleman, with a hat and eye-glasses'' is another such moment; it tells you precisely what Wozzeck's image of genteel morality is, and how unbridgeably remote from it he knows himself to be, but I think Grundheber chose that inflexion for a Viennese audience, and might have abandoned it when repeating his performance in a studio for home listeners in Tokyo or Tucson. It is somehow characteristic of this performance that Alfred Sramek, who was soberly staid as the drunken First Apprentice for Dohnanyi, lets at least some of his hair down for Abbado and even hiccups in the place where Berg has provided him with an obvious cue to do so.
Wozzeck is an expressionist score, not a late romantic one; there is a danger that once the hideous difficulties of playing it have been mastered, an orchestra (especially if that orchestra be the Vienna Philharmonic, perhaps) will be tempted by the obvious, just-under-the-surface kinships with Mahler to play it as though it were Mahler. Dohnanyi's outstandingly beautiful performance for Decca falls into this trap once in a while, and it is good to hear Abbado resisting any temptation to gloss over the shocking brutality and savage grotesqueness that are such crucial elements of the opera's manner. His underlining of a blackly sinister waltz element in scenes where you might not expect to find it, the way that the tavern-band music has something alarming to it from the very outset are both instances of this. Happily, though, the bad habits of overtly expressionist Wozzeck performances (accuracy of pitch and rhythm sacrificed to strenuous histrionics) are met with only rarely here; indeed the emphasis in the sprechstimme passages is very much on stimme, Behrens in particular making a very good case for regarding Berg's precisely notated pitches as proof that he wanted those notes and no others.
Grundheber is the world's ranking Wozzeck at present, and one can easily see why; without either the beauty of tone or the vivid acting of Walter Berry (for Boulez on CBS) he is a scrupulous musician, his voice is unstrained by the role's cruel demands (which one cannot say of Dohnanyi's raw and unsteady Eberhard Waechter) and he conveys Wozzeck's pathos and bitterness finely, though missing something of his crazed visionariness. Behrens's voice is perhaps a size too large for Marie, ideally, but her intelligence, her eloquent involvement with the role and the effortless open-ness of her high notes are ample compensation for an occasional tremulousness when singing quietly. There are no real weaknesses in the rest of the cast, but Haugland's demonstration that in order to characterize the Doctor's vehement monomania you do not need to rewrite a high proportion of his vocal line is a particular strength.
The possible drawback (for some listeners it will not be a drawback at all, for others quite a severe one) is that live recording. The orchestra are very much in the foreground, and instrumental details are apt to protrude simply because of this close proximity. I do not recall having been that close to a contra-bassoon ever before (or to the bombardon in the stage band—an artist of consummate virtuosity, by the way), and when the heavy brass are brought into play you may cower before their onslaught. As often as not I like this impression of sharing the rostrum with Abbado: the harshly protesting dissonances of the D minor interlude emerge with grinding bitterness (no, the piece is not a Mahlerian Adagietto in disguise!) and the closeness of much of the opera to Berg's phantasmagoric Op. 6 Orchestral Pieces has never been more apparent. But the voices are distinctly recessed, even sometimes overwhelmed (I could have done with eavesdropping at closer range on the Doctor's conversation with the Captain in Act 2, for example) and the occasional orchestral balance struck me as being determined more by the exigencies of microphone-placing in a crowded Staatsoper than by Abbado's preference.
Dohnanyi's version is more beautiful in orchestral texture, more sophisticated in recording technique, at times more subtle in its pacing than Abbado's rawly urgent account, but both his principal singers sound strained, Waechter severely so. It is easier to listen to than the new DG, and I shall return to it whenever I want a more comfortable perspective or a more Straussian view of the work (and the inclusion of a reliably decent but not outstandingly vivid account of Schoenberg's Erwartung makes it better value than its rivals), but compared to the Abbado it is studio-bound, with all the singers in word-enhancing but illusionshattering close-up. Nowhere near so close as those in Boulez's reading, where practically everything is presented to the listener eyeball-to-eyeball and in a harshly bright light. The voices give very little pleasure, with the solitary, glorious exception of Berry (perhaps the best Wozzeck on record). Boulez's direction veers between the miraculously precise and the fidgety; he is very good at nail-biting suspense and lucid clarification of complex textures but he seems more absorbedly interested in the score than in love with it. I would choose Abbado, almost unhesitatingly, but sample the vocal/instrumental balance before you definitely decide.'