Alban Berg, like few other musical geniuses (Berlioz for example), stands alone.
Though he followed others, and others followed him in similar usage of musical means, what he has to say is unique - and nowhere more so than in his craggy, monumental opera "Wozzeck."Building upon the play by George Buechner, who in turn based his drama upon a true incident in Leipzig, Berg moved into the world of musico-psychology (as he did again with "Lulu") as few have been able to do. Though music is ideally suited to express the vagaries of the human mind, it's tricky business to immerse oneself for a whole opera in the analysis of a deteriorating psyche.
To accomplish his purpose, Berg wove a brilliant array of musical forms and formalities - leitmotifs, fugues, rondos, inventions, and even an entire act (2) characterized as a symphony in five movements - into a fascinating tapestry of vocal and instrumental colors. (It's all analyzed in the accompanying booklet.)
This recording succeeds on several cerebral levels. The student and technician will delight in the analysis. The psychologist will marvel at the musical characterizations of mood swings and aberrant mental states.
But forms are like buckets. They exist to contain matter more important than themselves, and the world bows to that composer who employs form to sweep the listener into the urgency of his message.
Such was and is the case with "Wozzeck," which ever since its premiere in 1925 has swayed the musical world with its dramatic verity, its pathos and its strange, powerful beauty. And a reproduction as present and urgent as this argues persuasively for live-performance recordings. Though there are some problems with fading due to the singers' positions on stage, there is great reality in the cumulative, physical interaction of these characters, reflected in the sounds that come from their throats.
As the protagonist, Franz Grundheber has a smoldering, low baritone ideal for Wozzeck - the embodiment of man as a creature put upon and doomed by circumstance. He is a surprisingly good vocal colorist who conveys fear and resentment movingly, and his final flaming outbursts are the more shocking for his earlier restraint.
Is there anything Hildegard Behrens can't sing? As a vocal actress her equal is not to be found anywhere these days, and her emotional palette is limitless as the doomed Marie, a fallible woman whose many human facets and motivations Behrens makes clear.
Aage Haugland is superb as the humiliating, taunting Doctor who dehumanizes Wozzeck with his pointless little experiments and destructive gossip. Tenor Heinz Zednik sounds shallow and superficial as Wozzeck's callous captain, and Walter Raffeiner puts the proper swagger in his voice as the "fine figure" of a Drum Major.
Indeed, this cast is fortunate in its singing actors, right down to the drunken journeymen of Alfred Sramek and Alexander Maly, the Idiot of Peter Jelosits, and Viktoria Lehner's pathetic little Mariens Knabe, hop-hopping into a fate of oblivion as dreary as his father's.
In interpreting this psychological thriller, a certain Italianate passion is not out of place, and conductor Claudio Abbado's style is well suited to couching Germanic philosophy in operatic terms. Ranging from eerie pianissimo to blood-red, hot crescendos, Abbado masterfully balances all elements, brilliantly tossing off its drama and capturing its mood while respecting its formal genius.