Classical: The art of angst
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Tuesday 17 November 1998
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 paper
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Game of Thrones season 5: Emilia Clarke praises characters who 'accept their femininity'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate