BERG:  Wozzeck
Carl Johan Falkman (Wozzeck); Katarina Dalayman (Marie); Ulrik Qvale (Hauptman); Sten Wahlund (Doctor); Lennart Stregaard (Drum Major); Klas Hedlund (Andres); Marianne Eklöf (Margret); Jens Malmkvist (First Apprentice);  Ola Eliasson (Second Apprentice); Niklas Björling Rygert (Idiot); Henry Törnblom (Marie's Child); Stockholm Royal Opera Chorus & Orch/Leif Segerstam, cond.

NAXOS 8.660076/7 (2 CDs) (B) (DDD) TT:  92:03

Wozzeck is indisputably a 20th-century masterpiece, whether or not one finds the prevailingly (but not exclusively) atonal vocabulary agreeable, in a text Berg arranged from the 27 scenes that Georg Büchner (1813-37) failed to complete before his young death.  Berg chose 15, five per act, which Erich Kleiber conducted at the Berlin Staatsoper on December 14, 1925 after more than 40 rehearsals (although Hermann Scherchen introduced "Three Fragments" at Frankfurt a year earlier). The Soviets at first were enthusiastic after the Leningrad premiere in 1927, given the exploitation of a proletariat soldier by his superiors as the work's central theme. But Marie, Wozzeck's woman, is a prostitute whom he kills, after which he drowns trying to find the murder knife. Stalin's USSR was sexually prudish (several years later Shostakovich risked extermination with Lady Macbeth from Mzsensk, although by the time Stalin saw and denounced it the opera had been performed transatlantically to wide acclaim). Vienna didn't like Wozzeck in 1930, but Universal had already published it, with Alma Mahler underwriting some of the cost. In Germany, after Hitler came to power, the Nazis banned it.

Stokowski introduced Wozzeck stateside at Philadelphia in 1931, with Nelson Eddy in the title role (his M-G-M films with Jeanette MacDonald came later), a production shared with New York despite the Great Depression. But London didn't hear it until 1942, and then only a concert performance. Berg was never to know the work's postwar-2 success worldwide; he died in 1936, leaving the lurid third act of Lulu unfinished in order to compose the memorial Violin Concerto for Alma Mahler's daughter, Manon Gropius. The New York Metropolitan didn't dignify it with a production until 1959, conducted by Karl Böhm—nearly a decade after Dimitri Mitropoulos' sensational concert performances with the Philharmonic, starring Mack Harrell in the title role and Eileen Farrell as Marie. For almost 50 years, a mono aircheck—no matter the wrong notes (and they were plentiful)—was available on Columbia/CBS LPs and more recently Sony CDs. But this seems to be another victim of the recent holocaust in the recording business.

Currently, a copious new website called lists six available versions, in addition to this new one from Stockholm, although Pierre Boulez's powerful 1966 Paris recording on "CBS Masterworks" is available only by special order, while a live Salzburg performance in 1971 under Böhm is only on Opera d'Oro, at $2 less than Naxos. His DGG commercial version with Evelyn Lear and Fischer-Dieskau is gone, leaving only Abbado's 1990 Vienna performance on CD and video (with Hildegard Behrens in poor voice and Franz Grundheber in the title role, which he repeated in Barenboim's 1997 Berlin Staatsoper recording on Teldec). But there is no documentation of Hermann Uhde (1914-65), who was unforgettable at the Met, and only Opera d'Oro preserves Geraint Evans' performance, terrifying in its conflict of outward passivity and interior torment. In my admittedly limited experience of Wozzeck in the opera house, Uhde was inimitable, Evans incomparable.

The Stockholm Royal Opera production of Y2K on Naxos offers only a world-class Marie by Katarina Dalayman. With score in hand, Leif Segerstam's conducting is meticulous, even when the playing is not. But he can't seem to get softer than piano from the strings, which is damn near fatal in the final three scenes. Nor is he willing to exploit the impact of that B-major crescendo for full orchestra in III/2 following Marie's murder.  Elsewhere impulse is rationed. The recording doesn't give a stage band sufficiently independent sound, nor is Swedish expertise otherwise evident in this conflation of three performances, on February 12, 15 and 18, 2000. Carl Johan Falkman in the title role sounds merely surly throughout; and other than the ugliest falsetto sounds from Sten Wahlund as the Doktor heard since Gehrard Stolze, Stockholm's male voices are so similar-sounding one needs a score to sort them out.

A major problem, I'll wager, was a revisionist production by the late Götz Friedrich, whose version of Wagner's Ring in a railroad tunnel—all 20 hours of it—created a furor when Berlin's Deutsche Opera brought it to the U.S. In the Rheingold I saw at Kennedy Center in D.C., that concept worked only in the Gibichung scene. At Stockholm Friedrich updated Wozzeck from the 19th century without illuminating a bloody thing in Berg's and Büchner's version (Naxos' cover photo provides a clue). There's no libretto of course in this $14 package, but Keith Anderson has provided a virtuoso synopsis of the opera's 15 scenes , and very nearly as detailed a background essay (although one had to look up Büchner's dates). It would have been impossible in the space available to lay out Berg's enormously intricate musical structure, but Anderson is able to hint at. Not for the first time have I found his prose more admirable than the performance it accompanies.

This isn't a bad Wozzeck, mind you, but apart from Dalayman's contribution it is mediocre, in the literal sense of middle-ground ordinary.

(June 2002)