Have you seen the current production of Wozzeck at the Met? It’s been generally favorably reviewed, but I was troubled, as was, to some extent, Alex Ross in The New Yorker. The Kentridge production is simply too visually busy. The projections – some animated, some slowly shifting, amidst a cluttered set full of ramps and junk – were a distraction from Berg’s intricately crafted score. Maybe this kind of thing worked for The Nose, the Shostakovich opera presented by the Met in a Kentridge production several years ago; with thinner music, perhaps there was room for such a flood of images. Specific moments troubled me as well. It added nothing to have Wozzeck fussing with a film projector in the opening scene instead of shaving the Captain, apart from the obvious point that the production was packed with projections. I agree with Ross that the projected explosion at the climax of the last interlude was cringe-inducingly obvious. Ross welcomed Kentridge’s choice to start the scene in the tavern after the murder of Marie during the second of the two crescendi on B-natural, but I disagree. Not only did this spoil Berg’s cinematic jump cut to the tavern scene and its out-of-tune upright piano, but it distracted from what would otherwise have been the overwhelming power of the crescendo, which should fill your consciousness at that moment, just as it fills every musical register. Kentridge’s preference for slowly shifting images throughout the evening went against Berg’s choice of an abrupt juxtaposition at that moment. All night there were haunting images, but too many of them. (Was one of the projected images of detached heads in a field supposed to look like Schoenberg? That would be a fine piece of Freudian patricide on Berg’s behalf.) The performance was very fine; do I remember Levine’s performances as more shattering because of their inherent properties, or because I was struggling to attend to the music last night?
Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) was the closing work on the New York Philharmonic concert I attended back on the 9th. Like a good deal of Schoenberg, it is music I more respect than love.* Quite unlike Wozzeck, to cite another expressionist opera, I have no emotional connection with Erwartung.** The piece lacks a compelling shape, something Wozzeck certainly has. (I am not referring to the formal schemes Berg employed – suite, symphony, etc. but to the dramatic contour.) The individual gestures in the Schoenberg are striking – some rather more than others. Unsurprisingly, the moments where the ear can latch onto some sort of repeated pattern are the most telling – for example, the brief bustling spot where the harmony is built up and then quickly dismantled in steady sixteenth note rhythm. The fertility of invention is astounding, but ultimately tiresome. Deborah Voigt’s performance was powerful, with plenty of variety in tone and character. It was a good example of a strong performance selling a difficult piece, as the audience called her back repeatedly. I thought David Robertson was superb here and all through the evening. I have commented elsewhere about sitting at a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and thinking, “Well, it ain’t Berg”. I’m sorry to say I was thinking the same thing at Erwartung.
The program started with Shostakovich’s first symphony. I had forgotten the piece, but the bits that show up in the orchestration textbooks – the timpani and piano solos, for example – brought it back to me. Even with a piece that early in Shostakovich’s career, the listener is left wondering just how sincere and how ironic the music is supposed to be. After intermission, there were announcements and speeches honoring retiring members of the Philharmonic. Surely there was no playful intent, but it was a little funny to then perform Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead immediately after a ceremony for retirees!
*Kyle Gann has written about how few pieces by Schoenberg people actually like. I think my list might be longer than his, but it includes the 2nd and 4th quartets, Transfigured Night, Gurrelieder, the first Chamber Symphony, Pierrot, the piano suite, the Serenade, Book of the Hanging Gardens, the String Trio, Ode to Napoleon, Moses and Aron, perhaps a few others I am forgetting. The “respect” list includes a number of other pieces; and then there are the ones I actively dislike. Everyone I have ever talked to about it (OK, so not that many people) hates the Wind Quintet.
**I also feel little emotional connection with Lulu, but that is a different situation because the music is so gorgeous.