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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Wozzeck (1925)
Wozzeck – Audun Iversen (baritone)
Tambourmajor – Wolfgang Wolfsteiner (tenor)
Andres – Martin Mitterrutzer (tenor)
Hauptmann – Peter Bronder (tenor)
Erster Handwerksbursch – Thomas Faulkner (bass)
Zweiter Handwerksbursch – Iurii Samoilov (baritone)
Der Narr – Martin Wölfel (tenor)
Marie – Claudia Mahnke (soprano)
Doktor – Alfred Reiter (bass)
Margret – Katharina Magiera (contralto)
Mariens Knabe – Edward Jumatate (treble)
Chor und Kinderchor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester / Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, June/July 2016, Oper Frankfurt
German libretto enclosed
OEHMS CLASSICS OC974 [34:36 + 58:28]

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, left unfinished when the author died in 1837, aged 23. It was published in a heavily reworked version by Karl Emil Franzos in 1879 and it was not performed until November 1913 in Munich. Berg saw it in May 1914 when it was staged in Vienna and immediately felt it would be suitable for an opera. He delineated a structure in three acts, each divided in five scenes. He started work on it the same year, but due to the outbreak of the big war he was delayed. He was enrolled in the army and could only retain work when he was on leave in 1917-1918. By 1922 it was finished and three years later, on 14 December 1925 it premiered at the Berlin State Opera, conducted by Erich Kleiber. The reception was mixed and there were disturbances during the performance, but many of those present realised that this was something out of the ordinary, the first atonal opera with a dramatic potential that pointed forward to new achievements in the operatic field. There were new productions all over Europe and Alban Berg was able to make his living on the royalties. In 1933 it was banned by the Nazi authorities as “Entartete Kunst”, but outside Austria and Germany the work prospered and reached the US in 1931 when Stokowski conducted it in Philadelphia. Today Wozzeck is firmly established in the standard repertoire, and even though the tonal language still is a hard nut to crack for some listeners, the intensity of the drama is so strong that it silences the opposition. I doubt that any other “modern” opera has been recorded as many times as Wozzeck. On Wikipedia 9 complete recordings are listed (two of them being DVDs) from what must have been the pioneering set, issued by Columbia in 1951, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos and with Mack Harrell and Eileen Farrell as Wozzeck and Marie. Later versions have been conducted by Karl Böhm, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Sebastian Weigle and, the latest issue, Hans Graf and Houston Grand Opera on Naxos, published last year to great acclaim. I cannot claim to have heard them all. My first, and for many years only, was the 1965 DG production under Karl Böhm with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Evelyn Lear, and as a golden cameo, Fritz Wunderlich as Andres. Another attractive version, not on Wikipedia’s list, is a previous Naxos production, recorded live at the Stockholm Opera in 2000, conducted by Leif Segerstam, with the versatile Carl Johan Falkman as Wozzeck and internationally acclaimed Katarina Dalayman as Marie. This recording was very positively reviewed at Musicweb by Tony Haywood back in 2002. He also mentions another recording missing on Wikipedia’s list, Ingo Metzmacher from Hamburg on EMI, also live as are Abbado, Barenboim and Graf as well. So we are spoilt for choice since there, according to TH, is not one negligible recording among those he knew at the time. Possibly the oldest, Mitropoulos in 1951, has to be ruled out on sonic grounds.

The present one consequently faces stiff competition. Beginning with the orchestral forces, it has to be said that the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester under their Chief Conductor Sebastian Weigle have established themselves as a prime constellation when it comes to opera recordings. On their curriculum vitae we find the complete Ring des Nibelungen and the three early Wagner operas preceding Der fliegende Holländer, Reimann’s Lear, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, Humperdinck’s Königskinder, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Martinů’s Julietta and, most recently, Flotow’s Martha (review). I have reviewed or heard several of the previous issues as well and had the feeling that Weigle never puts a foot wrong, and that is also valid in this case. The playing is excellent throughout and the delicate opening scene of the third act, when Marie reads the Bible is a particularly memorable moment. And Claudia Mahnke is certainly superb there, singing so beautifully. In fact she can challenge any of the great Maries in the competing sets. She is warmer than Evelyn Lear for Böhm, slightly less bitingly intense than Katarina Dalayman for Segerstam, but this is a reading that catches the core of this dissociated character. Wozzeck is also a split character whose gradual mental decay we follow in this ruthless drama. Young Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen’s reading is utterly nuanced and wide-ranging. Some years ago I reviewed a recording of Werther where he was Albert, a notorious stuffed shirt character. But Iversen managed to make him come alive; a remarkable achievement indeed. His flexible voice encompasses all the shifts in Wozzeck’s mental state. He may not be as analytically deep-probing as Fischer-Dieskau, who arguably makes Wozzeck a too intellectual person. He is a philosopher in his own right but a much more down-to-earth character, and in Iversen’s reading he becomes more plausible.

The rest of the cast are basically subordinate character, but each and every one is a personality, sometimes verging on caricature. The interpreters’ task is like walking a tightrope to strike a balance. A beautiful voice is not the prime criterion to achieve this but expressivity is a must. Peter Bronder’s has all the expressivity needed for the Captain (Haupmann) but his delivery is so shaky that this listener almost cringes from displeasure. Still this is preferable to a literal straight-faced approach. Alfred Reiter’s Doctor is excellent, Vincent Wolfsteiner’s Drum-Major not quite as brilliant as one could wish but more than acceptable. Thomas Faulkner’s First Apprentice is also excellent, and Martin Mitterrutzner is good as Andres, but this is a role that is forever associated with Fritz Wunderlich, whose reading of the role for Karl Böhm is impossible to erase from my memory.

All in all this is a recording that can stand comparison with the three recordings I own: Böhm, Segerstam and Graf. Of these Segerstam and Graf are on Naxos and thus cheaper than Weigle, while Böhm at the moment is available in a box, coupled with Lulu, also conducted by Böhm and with Lear and Fischer-Dieskau in the leading roles. Whichever you buy you will have a worthy version of Berg’s masterpiece.

Göran Forsling

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