Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Hans Graf

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Berg
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Berg
WORKS: Wozzeck
PERFORMER: Roman Trekel, Anne Schwanewilms, Marc Molomot, Nathan Berg, Gordon Gietz, Robert McPherson, Katherine Ciesinski, Calvin Griffin, Samuel Schultz, Brenton Ryan; Members of Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus; Chorus of Students and Alumni, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University; Houston Symphony Orchestra/Hans Graf
CATALOGUE NO: 8.660390-91

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There are more corpses in Berg’s epoch-making opera, Wozzeck (1914-22), than the two literal ones of its devastating final scenes. Underpinning the harrowing tale of a tormented soldier and the girlfriend he brutally murders is a searing, apocalyptic vision of a society so inhumane as to signal the death – as Berg witnessed, during and after World War One – of any illusion of a just or genteel modern civilisation. Wozzeck is mocked by his superior officers and tortured in the name of medical science, as both he and Marie are oppressed by a system which they barely survive day-to-day.

This live, 2013 concert performance by the Houston Symphony, under their then outgoing musical director Hans Graf, benefits from a stellar cast. Yet, while singing with laudable clarity and commitment, principals Roman Trekel and Anne Schwanewilms lack desperation sufficient to paint the score blood red. Graf appears to choose as a model late-Romantic Mahler rather than expressionist Schoenberg; both are vital, but without the latter it is difficult to achieve the grotesque savagery at the heart of the piece.

Ideally, the nightmares that tip Wozzeck over the edge would be as viscerally real as they are imagined. Nathan Berg’s chilling Doktor certainly gives pause, but Marc Molomot, and especially Gordon Gietz – respectively the Captain and the Drum major – feel dramatically underpowered.

However, while the performance overall is short on disturbing inevitability, it exudes textural fascination: much attention is paid to orchestral detail, and Berg’s complex rhythmic polyphony in particular is lucidly rendered.

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Steph Power