Wozzeck, Hamburg State Philharmonic (Ingo Metzmacher, cond.)
Atonality Can Tell a Story
Soldier Wozzeck has it rough. He's harassed by his military superior, poked and prodded in the name of medicine by a quack, and cuckolded by his common-law wife. None of these self-absorbed characters notices when he begins to slowly fall apart. For all the overt brutality he endures, it's this blithe indifference that ultimately sends him into madness.
Or maybe it's the music playing around him. A student of Arnold Schoenberg, whose dissonant twelve-tone approach to composition ignited firestorms of controversy in classical music, Alban Berg (1885–1935) packs this opera with every ear-stretching device at his disposal. His prickly porcupine score relies on the atonality's jarring quality—its sudden changes of direction, its flashes of rage—to trace the progress of a fast-advancing inner delirium.
In adapting Georg Büchner's unfinished play (and lifting its text directly in many cases), Berg doesn't just do torment for torment's sake. He conjures different colors for each character and plot twist, and his intricately shaded confrontations bring listeners close to an emotional rawness. The exchanges exhibit a humanity missing from his teacher's compositions. Indeed, with this work and his similar orchestral efforts, Berg proved to the music world's many skeptics that Schoenberg's tactics can be more than number-crunching hoodoo.
Premiered in 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, Wozzeck instantly provoked outrage; only later was it embraced as one of the towering achievements of twentieth-century music. It is innovative not just for the drama embedded in its sounds, but also for its structure—a series of short, disconnected scenes that don't always track in linear sequence. This 1999 live performance, guided by Ingo Metzmacher, catches all the harrowing turbulence of the score, without adding any extra angst. Wozzeck doesn't need that.
Released: 1999, EMI
Key Tracks: Act 1, Scene 4: "Doctor"; Act 3, Scene 3: "Wozzeck and Marie."
Another Interpretation: New York Philharmonic (Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Chamber Concerto, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Pierre Boulez, cond.).
Next Stop: John Adams: Nixon in China, Orchestra of St. Luke's (Edo de Waart, cond.).
Book Page: 79