11 January 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg — WOZZECK (R. Trekel, A. Schwanewilms, M. Molomot, N. Berg, G. Gietz, R. McPherson, K. Ciesinski, C. Griffin, S. Schultz, B. Ryan; NAXOS 8.660390-91)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg - WOZZECK (NAXOS 8.660390-91)ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935): Wozzeck, Opus 7Roman Trekel (Wozzeck), Anne Schwanewilms (Marie), Marc Molomot (Hauptmann), Nathan Berg (Doktor), Gordon Gietz (Tambourmajor), Robert McPherson (Andres), Katherine Ciesinski (Margret), Calvin Griffin (Erster Handwerksbursche), Samuel Schultz (Zweiter Handwerksbursche), Brenton Ryan (Der Narr); Members of Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus, Deutsche Samstagsschule Houston, Chorus of Students and Alumni of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music; Houston Symphony Orchestra; Hans Graf, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 1 – 2 March 2013; NAXOS 8.660390-91; 2 CDs, 97:52; Available from NaxosDirect, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is now difficult to believe that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Händel’s Tamerlano, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La forza del destino, virtually all of Wagner’s mature operas, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and Britten’s Peter Grimes were considered radical when they were first performed. The history of opera is shaped by innovations, advancements in compositional techniques enacted upon the stage in efforts conscious and unconscious to propel musical invention. Each generation’s operatic revolutions provide the foundations for subsequent generations’ efforts at progress. In the decades since the course of Western music as a whole was altered by cataclysmic World Wars, the question with which opera companies, record labels, and opera lovers have contended is whether new scores have taken opera in directions that are artistically and fiscally sustainable—a question for which there are no easy answers. There were certainly no prefabricated responses to the social and psychological stimuli that led Viennese composer Alban Berg to grapple during the moral and physical devastation of the Great War with making an opera of Nineteenth-Century playwright Karl Georg Büchner’s thorny Woyzeck. Written over the course of eight years, 1914 – 1922, and premièred in Berlin with Erich Kleiber on the podium, Berg’s Wozzeck proved to be a turning point for German opera, largely deserting Wagnerian Romanticism in favor of a starker, tonally ambiguous modernity that continues to be manifested in the music of Aribert Reimann and Basel-born Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, whose E.T.A. Hoffmann-inspired opera Der Sandmann embodies aesthetics not unlike those of Wozzeck. Not surprisingly, Wozzeck, too, was deemed a radical, dangerous piece in 1925, and it is as chameleonic an opera as has ever been written, one with music that can take on an astonishing array of colors in the glows of different performances. Documenting a pair of concert performances by the Houston Symphony Orchestra that earned praise from the local press, this new NAXOS recording, expertly engineered and edited by Bradley W. Sayles, enriches the Wozzeck discography with an uncommonly dignified reading of the score. In short, what makes this Wozzeck radical is its uncompromising musicality.

There are a plethora of reasons for singers, orchestras, conductors, opera companies, record labels, and listeners to fear Wozzeck. For opera companies and record labels, a production or recording of Wozzeck rarely equates with robust sales, and conductors often receive credit, fairly or unfairly, for performances’ failures of both commission and omission. Wozzeck is indeed a score to be approached with caution, and it is with the caution of dedication to treating the opera with the unconditional preparedness that it merits that Austrian-born conductor Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra approach it in this performance. In Graf’s case, that preparation occasionally leads to an atmosphere of stolidity that deprives the performance of momentum. Graf’s pacing emphasizes the score’s cinematic construction, his focus on the quixotic humors of each of the fifteen scenes facilitating a traversal that accentuates Wozzeck’s episodic rather than its cumulative might. The unfailingly capable playing of the Houston Symphony musicians undoubtedly owes much to Graf’s leadership, but their individual virtuosity, not least in the gripping D-minor Interlude in Act Three, confirms that their conscientiousness is no less comprehensive than their director’s. [At the time of the Wozzeck performances in 2013, Graf was completing his final season as Houston Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, at the end of which he assumed the title of HSO’s Conductor Laureate.] ​Trained by chorus mistress Karen Reeves, the singing of members of Houston Grand Opera Children's Chorus​ in the opera’s final scene is ideal, sounding thoroughly professional but credibly childlike in music that can be spoiled by the well-meaning efforts of youngsters who sound as though they wandered in from a choir school. Likewise, the work of the chorus of students and alumni from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music is accomplished without being too refined: the denizens of Wozzeck are hardly courtiers singing madrigals, and the impact of Berg’s choral writing is undermined by singing that lacks the grit exhibited by the Houston choristers. With these personnel all on peak form, recording Wozzeck in concert yielded an aural document which preserves the tension of live performance without the distractions of stage noises. Though lacking consistent musical and narrative propulsion, this is a Wozzeck in which everyone’s best efforts are audible, an achievement of which few studio-recorded Wozzecks can boast.

The first voice heard in Wozzeck is that of ​the Hauptmann, the petulant captain whose puerile and frankly bizarre taunting of Wozzeck heightens the title character’s disenfranchising isolation and social ineptitude—often with sounds of dubious musicality. In this performance, that voice belongs to tenor Marc Molomot, whose intrepid singing of the Hauptmann’s angular, awkwardly high-lying music is one of this Wozzeck’s greatest strengths. Precisely what motivates the Hauptmann’s idiosyncratic actions is one of Büchner’s and Berg’s gnawing enigmas, but Molomot, ever a shrewd artist with an uncanny ability to topple façades and reveal the most basic foundations of a character and his music, employs his incisive vocalism in the opening scene of Act One with aptly insinuating insipidity that contrasts with the enticing sheen of his timbre. Singing ‘Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! Eins nach dem Andern!’ with absolute security and an uncommon degree of intonational accuracy, he endows the performance with a Hauptmann who both intrigues and repulses. The clarity of the tenor’s diction lends his utterance of ‘Es wird mir ganz angst um die Welt​’ unanticipated dramatic force. In the second scene of Act Two, Molomot’s Hauptmann momentously spars with the Doktor, his voicing of ‘Wohin so eilig, geehrtester Herr Sargnagel?’ bursting with irony. Then, in the fourth scene of Act Three, Molomot weights his delivery of ‘Es ist das Wasser im Teich. Das Wasser ruft. Es ist schon lange Niemand ertrunken. Kommen Sie, Doktor! Es ist nicht gut zu hören’ with intensity appropriate to the meaning of the text but without forcing or artificially inflating his tonal amplitude. His singing allows the listener to hear far more of the notes that Berg wrote for the rôle than is typical of most depictions, and, moreover, they are notes that one actually enjoys hearing. In many performances, the Hauptmann is more a pathetic jester than a serious combatant in the psychological contest that precipitates Wozzeck’s ultimate tragedy. Molomot’s Hauptmann is a three-dimensional figure, however, a Twentieth-Century cousin of Rameau’s Platée who perhaps victimizes Wozzeck because he has in some unknown way been a victim himself. Vocally, not even Hugues Cuénod’s RAI Roma Hauptmann in italiano is more distinguished.

As sung by​ bass-baritone Nathan Berg, the sinister Doktor is both a suitably neurotic foil to Molomot’s Hauptmann and a menacing catalyst in the tragic chain of emotional reactions that destroy Wozzeck. In the fourth scene of Act One, Berg—the fortuitously-surnamed native of Saskatchewan is presumably of no close relation to the composer—pours out ‘Was erleb’ ich, Wozzeck? Ein Mann ein Wort?’ lustily, his dark-hued voice enfolding music and words like the melodramatic twirl of a silent-film villain’s cape. The eery suggestiveness of his statement of ‘Ich hab’s geseh’n, Wozzeck, Er hat wieder gehustet​’ is unsettling and, again complementing Molomot’s Hauptmann, all the more riveting for being so handsomely sung. Berg’s command of Baroque repertory is evident in his Doktor’s incisive exchanges with the Hauptmann in Act Two’s second scene, the bass-baritone articulating ‘Wohin so langsam, geehrtester Herr Exercizengel?’ with the sure timing of a singer skilled at enlivening secco recitatives. Berg’s Doktor is unnerving without being wholly unhinged; irredeemable, to be sure, but not altogether unsympathetic. With the voice always under complete control, Berg creates a characterization that is as steeped in sadness as in sadism, a convincing individual both troubled and troubling rather than an unimaginative shadow of Josef Mengele.

There is nothing foolish about tenor Brenton Ryan’s voicing of ​Der Narr’s fateful pronouncement of ‘Ich riech, ich riech Blut!​’ in the fourth scene of Act Two: for once, the quality of the singer’s voice is equal to the significance of the character’s words. Similarly, the Erster and Zweiter Handwerksburschen of bass-baritone Calvin Griffin and baritone Samuel Schultz bring voices of excellent caliber and potential to their duties in the fourth scene of Act Two. Upholding the standard set by her male colleagues, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski ​brings the often-negligible Margret to life with vocalism of inviolable concentration that makes her a fitting partner for the opera’s equivocal heroine in the Act One scene with Marie. [Incidentally, Ciesinski’s sister Kristine is a celebrated Marie, so perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to mastery of Berg’s music.] In the third scene of ​Act Three, Ciesinski articulates ‘In’s Schwabenland, da mag ich nit​’ with apposite simplicity, an exemplary example of the benefit of the work of a major artist in a minor rôle.

Wozzeck’s comrade Andres, like Margret a rôle that is frequently forgettable even in effective performances, receives from versatile tenor Robert McPherson a portrayal of musical and dramatic integrity bolstered by fine singing. In his appearance in Act One’s second scene, this Andres phrases ‘Das ist die schöne Jägerei’ with stirring vigor, the character’s presence broadened by the suppleness of the singer’s musical declamation. In the fourth scene of Act Two, McPherson’s sonorous account of ‘O Tochter, liebe Tochter, was hast du gedenkt’ exudes a quality rarely deployed in Wozzeck: charm. McPherson’s enunciation of text is occasionally slightly wooden, at odds with his smooth vocal production, but there are alluring nuances in his handling of Andres’s music that are also seldom encountered in performances of the opera. Wozzeck is a man who is much in need of a true friend, and McPherson here adds a new facet to the work’s cataclysmic dénouement by subtly bringing Andres from the periphery to the center of the drama.

The ​Tambourmajor is one of the most loathsome characters in opera, a sexual predator exhilarated by the pursuit of challenging prey. Nevertheless, like the confrontation between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, there is uncertainty about the extent of Marie’s complicity in the sexual assault perpetrated upon her by the Tambourmajor. By accepting his gift of earrings, the latent symbolism of which would have been bounteous fodder for Sigmund Freud, there is at least an implication of receptiveness, but it is clear that Marie is taken by brutality, not by wooing. The Tambourmajor of Alberta-born tenor Gordon Gietz is that most threatening of psychopaths, one who masks his neurosis with normalcy. His portrayal is a study of the sort of irrepressible appetite for carnal conquest that engenders a dissociative disbelief in both the act and the concept of refusal. The drive with which Gietz sets this in motion places too much pressure on the voice in some passages, but the singer never allows the actor to push too perilously. In the contest of wills with Marie in the final scene of Act One, Gietz’s Tambourmajor hurls out ‘Wenn ich erst am Sonntag den grossen Federbusch hab’, und die weissen Hanschuh!​’ scorchingly, the voice resounding with a metallic ring that would be welcome in Siegfried’s forging song. His prevailing musical muscularity notwithstanding, this is a thinking Tambourmajor, one who transcends the mindless trumpeting of a libidinous fraternity brother obsessed with his own erotic prowess.

Acclaimed for her compelling interpretations of Richard Strauss’s operatic heroines, German soprano Anne Schwanewilms ignites this Wozzeck with a forceful, fascinating interpretation of the prismatic Marie. Like Nedda in Leoncavalli’s Pagliacci, Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro, and Zemfira in Rachmaninov’s Aleko, Schanewilms’s Marie is a woman in crisis, not so much a conventional operatic damsel in distress as a working-class Mother Courage whose circumstances crush idealism. Interestingly, Schwanewilms’s performance on this recording often brings to mind the work of two very different musical personalities, the unflappable Eleanor Steber, the Metropolitan Opera’s first Marie, and Regina Resnik, a magnificent singing actress who was not a MET Marie but should have been. In Schwanewilms’s singing here, the luminosity of the upper octave of Steber’s voice is combined with the evenness of the young Resnik’s negotiations of vocal registers. Vocally, Schwanewilms is as talented a technician as has ever been heard as Marie, and she rivals Steber, Eileen Farrell, Christa Ludwig, and Sena Jurinac for tonal luster in this music. From her lulling ‘Tschin Bum, Tschin Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum! Hö​rst Bub? Da kommen sie!’ at her entrance in the third scene in Act One to the final note of her part, Schwanewilms inhabits the rôle with conviction, breathing life into Marie with atypical decorum and no shortage of temperament. She voices ‘Mädel, was fangst Du jetzt an?’ ardently, and this tigress reveals her claws in her first faceoff with Wozzeck. In the fifth scene, battling the Tambourmajor, Schwanewilms’s manages Marie’s erupting fury with the adroitness of a great Brünnhilde in Act Two of Götterdämmerung. She both goads and recoils from her attacker, and the soprano’s measured, perceptive singing juxtaposes meaningfully with Gietz’s more savage emoting.

In the opening scene of Act Two, Schwanewilms phrases ‘Was die Steine glänzen? Was sind's für weiche? Was hat er gesagt?’ with keen judgment of the gravity of the text, and she pilots the discourse in the succeeding scene with Wozzeck with a voicing of ‘Ich bin doch ein schlecht Mensch’ of unmistakable purport. In the act’s third scene, she again seizes the advantage over Wozzeck, investing her declaration of ‘Lieber ein Messer in den Leib, als eine Hand auf mich’ with a wealth of expressive zeal. In Act Three, Schwanewilms’s Marie is a woman at her breaking point who nonetheless possesses reserves of resilience and defiance. The first scene is representative of the sophistication of the soprano’s artistry: at once flinty and seductively feminine, even romantic, she sings ‘Und ist kein Betrug in seinem Munde erfunden worden’ with fervor. Her Marie faces her final conflict with Wozzeck unflinchingly, seeming to embrace death at her partner’s hand as the inevitable destination of her harrowing journey. By turns maternal, sensual, dominating, and demure, Schwanewilms’s performance has markedly greater depth than many Maries, eschewing the commonplace trend of portraying the character as a soulless harridan. Above all, it is an unexpected and therefore increased pleasure to hear the rôle truly and glamorously sung.

German baritone ​Roman Trekel is a Wozzeck with a Lieder singer’s suavity and sensitivity, recalling the Wozzeck of his countryman Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but bringing to Berg’s music a tougher, more rugged natural instrument and a notion of the rôle defined more by machismo than by metaphysics. This is not to intimate that Trekel’s Wozzeck is a bumbling simpleton, but the resonant bonhomie of his singing of ‘Wir arme Leut! Sehn Sie, Herr Hauptmann, Geld, Geld!’ at his first appearance in Act One is redolent more of testosterone than of grey matter. In the scene that follows, Trekel intones ‘Du, der Platz ist verflucht!​​’ with glimmers of the frustration, violence, and inability to overcome social barriers that eventually overwhelm and obliterate him. The very different demands of the dialogues with first Marie and then the Doktor in the ensuing scenes are met with commendable comprehension of the consequence of their dramatic volatility.

Reuniting with Marie in the first scene of Act Two, Trekel’s growling ‘Was der Bub immer schläft!’ reflects Wozzeck’s discomfort with the social rôles he is expected to play. Tellingly, he is more comfortable in the next scene with the Hauptmann and the Doktor, dispatching ‘Herr Hauptmann, ich bin ein armer Teufel!’ with assurance. Insecurity steals back into the characterization with Marie’s return in Scene Three, but the baritone’s singing of​ ‘Der Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt Einem, wenn man hinunterschaut mich schwindelt...’ is formidably solid. Trading gibes with Andres in Scene Four and jeers with the Tambourmajor in Scene Five, Trekel’s vocalism flickers with growing discontent and angst.

In the opera’s final act, Trekel’s portrait of Wozzeck is painted in dark colors that do not entirely obscure the lighter aspects of the tormented man’s psyche. What light has shone in Wozzeck’s spirit is extinguished in the second scene of Act Three, however, his exasperation exploding into deadly ferocity with a vehement account of ‘Bist weit gegangen, Marie.’ The raw expressivity of Trekel’s pained ‘Tanzt Alle; tanzt nur zu, springt, schwitzt und stinkt, es holt Euch doch noch einmal der Teufel!’ in Scene Three is haunting, but it is his despondent ‘Das Messer? Wo ist das Messer? Ich hab’s dagelassen...’ in Scene Four that breaks the heart. Partnering Schwanewilms with comparable eloquence and captivating vocalism, Trekel rescues Wozzeck from the caricatured Punch and Judy show buffoonery in which it has often been mired in recent years. Dramatically, Trekel’s Wozzeck is a peer of Tito Gobbi’s astute interpretation, and his singing is some of the finest heard in Wozzeck’s music since Hermann Uhde introduced the character to the Metropolitan Opera in 1959.

It is indicative of the adaptive artistry of this cast that, with the addition of a pair of capable sopranos, they might constitute a near-perfect ensemble for Richard Strauss’s Arabella. If this suggests that the voices in this performance are plusher than those in many Wozzecks, it is a valid suggestion. The voices are, in fact, the glory of this Wozzeck. They are the pith of a performance in which the many beauties of Berg’s score are permitted to cast their spells on the listener, shattering the stigmas of atonality and Sprechgesang. When there is ugliness in this performance, it arises from the text rather than from the music, Berg having set the text with extraordinary responsiveness to its complexities. Seemingly paradoxically, the preeminence in this performance’s ethos of unveiling the oft-hidden beauties of the music causes the score to sound more, not less, revolutionary. There can be no single definitive Wozzeck, but this is a brilliant one in which the music appeals as powerfully as the drama appalls.