See-Through, Cool Wozzeck

Review by: Robert Levine

wozzeck

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

This is the recording of this opera I would recommend to people who have never heard it before. Wozzeck is an opera that rarely fails to impress even the most conservative listener when it is seen, but recordings are another story; its apparent formlessness and clashing sonorities can seem a mish-mash if one does not know what is happening on stage. Following with the libretto at home makes an enormous difference (Naxos does not supply one; it can be found on the label’s website) but it does not solve the inherent problems.

Conductor Hans Graf and his Houston forces, in this live performance, have not shied away from the work’s atonal difficulties; in fact they are almost spoon-fed by him and his engineers. The trees are visible, but the density and hopelessness of the forest aren’t there. The dark string texture underlines everything along with the bassoons, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet, but rather than sounding menacing, they lessen the horror: this performance is so spotless that the work’s cruelty is missing. Rarely has the Murder Scene offered so few chills; never have I heard such a matter-of-fact Apotheosis and final scene–the desolation of Marie’s child, alone on his play horse, lacks all atmosphere.

As hinted, it may be the engineering–one can’t quite hear the boom of the bass drum when the Drum-Major first shows up, and every so often the male singers get swamped by the orchestra. And since it seems that Graf is going for lyricism and clarity rather than a punch in the solar plexus, I must assume that the engineers are responsible.

But much of the singing is sensational. Roman Trekel is an ideal, light-voiced, dark-thinking Wozzeck, his diction flawless, observance of the sung vs. sprechstimme passages correct. And he sounds purposely weak and unbalanced, and more so as the opera continues: it’s visceral. Anne Schwanewilms is a magnificent Marie, one whose sensuality and plight are felt from the start–the boredom, the anger, the loneliness, and the sweetness too; the Bible reading is still and lovely. Her voice is in great shape, with the high Cs no problem.

Katherine Ciesinski is probably the best–and trashiest–Margret on disc, and the fact that she is recorded so closely helps. Gordon Gietz lacks the boastfulness needed for the Drum-Major, but he sings well. Marc Molomot does little with the Captain’s music or personality and misses those falsetto, train-whistle moments entirely. Brenton Ryan’s ‘Narr’ and Robert McPherson’s Andres are vivid. Nathan Berg’s Doktor is a pip of a lunatic. The orchestra plays stunningly, as mentioned, and the choruses are superb in their big, multi-layered scenes.

And so, here is a beautifully played and sung, musically clear and distinct Wozzeck, with details galore, but whose dramatic effect is vaguely antiseptic and “cool”. Over to you.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Barenboim, Grundheber (Teldec); Kegel, Theo Adam (Brilliant)

  • Roman Trekel (baritone); Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); Marc Molomot, Gordon Gietz, Robert McPherson (tenor); Nathan Berg (bass-baritone); Katherine Ciesinski (mezzo-soprano)
  • Houston Symphony, Hans Graf


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