Berg: Wozzeck

Our rating 
1.0 out of 5 star rating 1.0

LABELS: Andante
WORKS: Wozzeck
PERFORMER: Walter Berry, Max Lorenz, Murray Dickie, Peter Klein, Karl Dönch, Harald Pröglhöf, Marjan Rus, William Wernigk, Christl Goltz, Polly Batic; Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Karl Böhm first conducted Wozzeck in Darmstadt in 1931 and championed this work all his life – with the notable exception of the years in which he was the Nazi-appointed Director of the Vienna Staatsoper. His definitive account surely remains the 1965 studio recording he set down in Berlin for DG, still among the most orchestrally and vocally polished of available accounts, and none the less gut-wrenching. It is presumably on the back of that version’s reputation that Andante thought it worth resurrecting this 49-year-old Austrian Radio recording, made during the opening season (not, as the CD cover implies, at the actual reopening) of the rebuilt Staatsoper in November 1955. By comparison with the DG version, however, this performance is tentative and approximate without, to my ears, any of the compensating dramatic values that live recordings can bring. Much of the orchestral playing is frankly scrappy (the first of the two big crescendos after Marie’s murder ends in a shambolic squeak; the great D minor Adagio after Wozzeck’s suicide drifts aimlessly along before Böhm seizes control and steers it towards an unearned climax in which bombast drowns out pathos); both singing and sprechgesang are often painfully ill-tuned and unidiomatic – not surprisingly, since most of the cast had enjoyed their heyday during the Third Reich and were unaccustomed to performing such ‘degenerate’ music. The signal exception is the Wozzeck of Walter Berry – at only 26 the youngest and so perhaps the most musically adaptable. With his warm, soft-grained voice, he is more convincingly plebeian than the patrician Fischer-Dieskau on Böhm’s 1965 set, and less hammily expressionistic than his later self on Boulez’s soulless 1966 set; yet he is also slightly anonymous, more nobody than everyman. So, for Böhm at his musical best, go for DG (now coupled with his 1968 live Berlin recording of the two-act Lulu). But for a version that most powerfully combines ravishing music-making and coruscating drama, choose Claudio Abbado’s 1987 live recording – also from the Vienna Staatsoper – with Franz Grundheber and Hildegard Behrens (available either in the eight-CD budget-price Alban Berg Collection from DG or, even better, on DVD from Arthaus). Mark Pappenheim