CD review: Wozzeck from Houston

First published in the Guardian on 5 January, 2016

Houston Symphony / Graf

A working class guy tries and fails to get by in a society that ignores poverty and disdains mental illness, and the consequences shame us all. Schoenberg thought the message inappropriate for opera (“one writes about angels, not batmen”) but today Alban Berg’s Wozzeck should feel more brutally urgent than ever. This new recording from the Houston Symphony under Hans Graf is as lustrous and well-fed as you’d expect from a Texan outfit, with thundering lower strings and glossy, supple wind lines that cushion the characters rather than taunt them. Adorno believed that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music but Graf’s account never gets truly terrifying — the orchestral commentary, where Berg stores the drama’s deepest angst, remains too contented, too shy of real cruelty. But the singing is gripping: baritone Roman Trekel is one of today’s top Wozzecks, full-on and volatile, his violence cracked with frailty, and Anne Schwanewilms plays Marie with devastating dignity.