With all of its melodrama and bellicosity, opera has always been a tough nut for avant-garde composers to crack. The very nature of opera demands a certain traditionalism that requires composers to either ignore the form or ignore their philosophies. Certainly some have succeeded Ligeti, Partch, Penderecki but most 20th-century opera, whether that of Menotti, Britten or even Adams, tends to hew quite closely to musical theater traditions.
Alban Berg (1885-1935) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, the undisputed master of early-20th-century atonality. The lessons Berg took from his teacher were hardwired into the majority of his compositions and while fellow students like Anton Webern would utilize the teachings in decidedly more strident and far-reaching ways, Berg sought a peculiar middle ground that would force "accepted" notions of classicism to walk down these newly cut paths of tonal dissonance. Were opera a svelte and lenient lady in the late 1800s, this might have been an easy task; being that she was quite zaftig and set in her ways, it's not at all surprising that Berg's two operas Wozzeck and Lulu are shocking pieces, full of internal conflicts that are still surprising.
In the liner notes to the new Andante edition of Wozzeck (culled from the Austrian Radio archives), Washington Post critic Tim Page notes the "creepy-crawly expressionism" of Berg's style; in both Wozzeck and Lulu, "the creeps" is what you get. Both operas are steeped in paranoia and isolation. While Wozzeck is a pathetic character who is beset on all sides by pressure and negativity, Lulu brazenly ignores all these things, only to have them consume her in the end in the form of (what else?) Jack the Ripper.
There's a huge storm of nihilism brewing in both operas that's beautifully portrayed by the abrasive strength of Berg's compositional style. Wozzeck burns slowly until it finally explodes, while Lulu chugs along like a toy train, picking up steam and winding through multiple circular turns. The normally traditional Karl Böhm (a surprisingly steadfast champion of Berg) masterfully grasps the tempo-driven lyricism of the pieces, putting the Vienna State Opera through some exquisite paces. These performances may not glisten with the sheen of Böhm's more well-known Deutsche Grammophon studio recordings of Berg, but they certainly thrive on their own merits, with an intensity and raw purity that belie the theoretical gymnastics at play.
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