Two Wozzecks and a Salome in Concert

By Sedgwick Clark

Which is more important, asks Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio: the music or the words? With the Vienna Philharmonic onstage at Carnegie Hall and surtitles cuing every vocal line, the question (and answer) may be less whimsical than ever.

Franz Welser-Möst led New York’s favorite visiting orchestra on February 28 at Carnegie Hall’s Vienna Festival in the most beautiful rendering of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck I’ve ever heard, and the next evening Andris Nelsons led Strauss’s Salome with the same orchestra in a performance that made the composer sound like an amateur orchestrator, which we all know him not to have been.

So, pace Georg Solti who maintained that the VPO was utterly intractable, conductors do have an effect on this fabled orchestra after all. I fretted that Welser-Möst’s hitherto neutral brand of music-making would not fully convey the emotional range of this heart-rending score. Neutral, however, it most assuredly was not. I staggered out of Carnegie Hall dumbstruck and shaken that Wozzeck could be so devastating emotionally as well as orchestrally ravishing. Remember, this is late-Romantic music, just a step more “modern” than Mahler’s Ninth and Strauss’s Elektra in style. Recordings from the 1920s and ’30s indicate how it would have been played. Welser-Möst’s full-throated unleashing of the Viennese musicians’ traditional sonority was fully defensible. Instrumental detail was both wondrous and expressive, revealing every glistening note of Berg’s colorful palette.

Wozzeck is heavy sledding for those accustomed to such standard operatic tragedies as Werther and La Bohème. A dim-witted soldier (Wozzeck) who has fathered an illegitimate child with what used to be called a “loose” woman (Marie), kills her when he learns of her infidelity with a loutish Drum Major and then drowns when he attempts to dispose of the murder weapon. In the final scene, their son is playing with neighboring children when word comes of his mother’s death; he seems not to understand and continues singing and playing as the other children run offstage and the music simply stops mid-note, unresolved.

The VPO opera-in-concert performances placed the vocalists on massive, unpainted, four-foot platforms on either side of Carnegie’s stage, facing each other rather than the audience, with the orchestral musicians spread across Carnegie’s stage in between. In my experience, the optimal balance of presence and indirect sound is in Carnegie’s first-tier boxes. In my usual parquet seat, the vocalists were overwhelmed by the orchestra a good deal of the time. Far better to line up the cast in front of the orchestra and “Sing out, Louise.”

Marie is the most sympathetic character in the opera and has the most affecting music, which Evelyn Herlitzius projected magnificently. Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) suffered most from his placement upstage on the audience-left platform; Berg sets much of the role in dark, sepulchral tones, and the bass-baritone’s low register was particularly muffled. Herwig Pecoraro (Captain) and Wolfgang Bankl (Doctor) succeeded by turning to the audience and never dipping below forte. But the star of this show was unequivocally the Vienna Philharmonic, and it came through with flying colors. This was the most extraordinary orchestral performance I’ve heard so far this season—one which I can’t imagine will be surpassed. No doubt, the music was most important here.

The first Wozzeck I ever saw was at the Met in February 1969, in English, conducted by Colin Davis, and the most recent Wozzeck was two performances under James Levine at the Met this past week (3/6 and 3/10). In between were a fine concert performance by Christoph von Dohnányi and Cleveland at Carnegie (1/28/95); a notably successful semi-staged concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall last season, superbly played and conducted by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a fine Wozzeck in Simon Keenlyside (11/19/12); and several other Levine/Met performances.  

The Levine bears comment. The minimal stage design is effective, with dark shadows and melancholy colors. Unlike Welser-Möst and Salonen, he was careful to keep the orchestra at a level that allowed the singers to be heard clearly. Matthias Goerne, substituting on opening night (3/6) in the title role for an indisposed Thomas Hampson, was heard to far greater effect at the Met. Levine’s approach to the score emphasized its stark, unsensuous Expressionist elements, which today’s commentators are likely to consider more authentic. Making a comparison with artists contemporary to Berg, one might say that Welser-Möst is to Gustav Klimt as Levine is to Egon Schiele.

For me, Welser-Möst’s Wozzeck was a revelation, and while I could appreciate the craft, Levine’s didn’t move me an iota.

Salome and Andris Nelsons

Coming one evening after W-M’s Wozzeck, the Vienna Philharmonic’s opera-in-concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was not to my liking. VPO’s opaque textures caused me to wonder if it were the same orchestra (and, indeed, many of the players of this large ensemble might have been different).

The major, and accomplished, vocalists—Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome), Gerhard A. Siegel (Herod), Jane Henschel (Herodias), Jochanaan (Falk Struckmann), and Narraboth (Carlos Osuna)—often made a point of turning toward the audience and moving to the front of the platforms, improving the vocal/orchestra balance problems of the previous evening. On the other hand, upon exiting the hall, my primary feeling was that of having been screamed at for an hour and 45 minutes.

I’ll stick with memories of Teresa Stratas as Salome with Karl Böhm from the late 1970s and Karita Mattila with Valery Gergiev from 2004. Oh, and Birgit Nilsson with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (12/18/74) from front row center of Carnegie Hall’s balcony.

As for Maestro Nelsons, music director-designate of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he is impossible to watch. A strong sense of structure would seem more helpful to an orchestra than describing every little detail in the air to players far more acquainted with the music than he. I had hoped to be able to find more to praise last night (3/13) at Carnegie in his final concert of the Vienna festival. Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 was its usual joy, but a tired reading of Brahms’s Haydn Variations and a sprawling Third Symphony were not encouraging.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/14 Avery Fisher Hall at 2:00. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert. Nielsen: Helios Overture; Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”).

3/16 Avery Fisher Hall at 3:00. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Corigliano: Symphony No. 1. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

3/17 Avery Fisher Hall at 8:00. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel; Yuja Wang, piano. Daniel Bjarnason: Blow Bright. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

3/20 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano. Ravel: Piano Concerto in G. Weill: Symphony No. 2. Gershwin: Concerto in F.

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