Berg: Wozzeck (Salonen, Philharmonia, Keenlyside, Denoke, etc.)
Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra (David Milnes)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller)
The American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz)
19 November 2012
Avery Fisher Hall, New York
This was, as reviews from the New York Times, the AP wire, and other sources have already indicated, an outstanding performance of Berg’s Wozzeck. Two major points need making. I saw a performance with many of the same singers in London in 2009, long before UI existed. Boulezian reviewed that performance (here), and if anything Salonen’s conducting was even greater here. Perhaps it seems that way because of my greater familiarity with the work now, but Salonen’s contrasts, his extraordinary drive, and his ability to create a heavy, bleak atmosphere around the sound of the precise Philharmonia Orchestra seemed far more confident and intense this time around. The lack of video projections left more room for genuine acting on stage – far more so, incidentally, than one would enjoy in an opera house – and many of the singers took this rare opportunity. Simon Keenlyside, in particular, was a total triumph in this regard, his Wozzeck deranged from the start and yet embracing his destiny as time went on.
Second, I wondered how much hearing Mahler 9 the night before emphasized the clarity and power Salonen brought to this reading. As I wrote in my review of that (on Bachtrack, here), Salonen had eschewed heart-on-sleeve emotionality of a Bernstein/Levine/etc. type of reading. Although that kind of conducting has its place, Salonen focused much more on the Webernian, Bergian side of Mahler, like Gielen or Boulez, but with a slightly more excitable edge. Only 13 years passed between the completion of Mahler 9 and Wozzeck – although with the intervention of war, so important to Berg, what a 13 years they were – and one could certainly tell the brevity of time passed here.
Whereas the Mahler had looked forward, this Berg looked back to a surprising degree; not, I should add, to the extent of a Böhm or a Levine – Salonen is too much of a modernist and too interested in compositional technique for that – but just enough to show the kinship. Much as Schoenberg’s great rupture is important, Salonen made a convincing case for viewing Mahler and Berg in the same breath.
The result was horrid, properly, deeply horrid. Not for nothing did legions of subscribers walk out during the short breaks between acts. One wonders why they bothered in the first place, but I remain thankful that Berg (and his comrades) retain the power to shock and disturb. The desperate air that Salonen conjured suggested beyond anybody of the protagonists’ control, but he also managed to keep things terrifyingly human. (Something he also achieved in a London performance of Dallapiccola’s Il Prigionero, again before the existence of UI, but reviewed by Boulezian here.)
As much as this was down to Salonen, the singing and acting was uniformly superb. Keenlyside revelled in the expressive possibilities given to him by Berg’s music, and, good as he was in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, he was in another league here. I still fear that his voice is fraying somewhat, for much of his Wozzeck was delivered in a kind of Sprechgesang hybrid, but the intensity of performance was much improved from an already high level three years ago. Angela Denoke was similarly impressive as Marie, although occasionally a little imprecise in intonation and unable to bring quite the attention to text as, say, Waltraud Meier. Hubert Francis‘s incorrigibly randy, arrogant Drum Major, Peter Hoare‘s viciously complex Captain (the (im)morality of militarism indeed), and Tijl Faveyts‘s downright creepy Doctor (the horrors of World War II never seem far away with Berg) were all chillingly portrayed. In smaller roles, Joshua Ellicott as Andres and Anna Burford as Margret both similarly impressed.
I didn’t sleep properly for days.