THE GREAT D minor interlude which crests and breaks over the final scene of Alban Berg's Wozzeck is like a mighty infarction in the chronicle of 20th century music. It would seem to be the very point at which Mahler hands over his hard-won inheritance to Berg. Christoph von Dohnanyi's Philharmonia concert series, Mahler and Vienna: Beginnings and Endings, seemed to begin and end there on Saturday night. It was one of several key moments in this painstakingly prepared concert performance of Berg's opera, which revealed Dohnanyi's reading for what it was: a fiercely objective, but ultimately heartless, account of this magnificent score.
Berg's orchestra is a lurid, streaked canvas of insanity, hallucination and man's inhumanity to man. Demented military tattoos portend death without glory, strangulated woodwinds personify the abused and the disfigured, the eerie celeste hints at madness, while tawdry music from the beer garden and bar room seems to confirm it. Only the solo horn dares to dream.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of Berg's score is that all of it is achieved within the disciplines of strict compositional procedures. And Dohnanyi is a very disciplined practitioner. A fearlessly accomplished Philharmonia Orchestra laid bare the viscera of the score with ruthless clarity and precision.
But there's more to Berg's (and the playwright Buchner's) theatre of cruelty. An underlying compassion which surfaces only fleetingly during the course of this bad dream, but which sublimates overwhelmingly in that great D minor interlude. That Dohnanyi made so little of the great crescendo leading to its point of release was symptomatic of an emotional and theatrical frigidity at precisely the moment where the opposite must be true. Just as the two mighty crescendos on unison B, following the death of Marie, serve as stark and shocking exclamations of horror, so must this brief and untimely climax carry with it the entire opera's heartache. It didn't.
That burden fell to Franz Hawlata's excellent Wozzeck, a performance beautifully conveying the dementia that makes this simple man articulate. And to Deborah Polaski's Marie, a tiny bit inhibited by the letter of the notation but, as ever, alive to the spirit and drama of the text.
As for Buchner's gallery of grotesques, Eric Halfvarson's shaved-headed Doctor looked like his surname might be Death, while his neurotic acquaintance, the Captain, was, in Graham Clark's incisive performance, the personification of hypertension, the tessitura of the vocal line suggesting his scrawny neck stretched for Wozzeck's razor. Now there's a thought for anyone next staging the piece.
A version of this review appeared in yesterday's paperReuse content