For collectors who have no problem with Wozzeck, music lovers for whom the status and quality of the work are established rather than questionable, this set ought in my own opinion to be a very safe recommendation. Does anyone have a problem with its being sung in English? Part of Wagner's prospectus for his new music-dramas, and an important reason for the type of vocal lines he used, was precisely to enable them to be sung in the vernacular wherever they were performed. Demands to hear opera in its original language struck him as snobbish and irrational, and one can sympathise. However the traditional type of opera with arias made translations problematical - it would never be easy to get audiences to accept much-loved favourites like Mozart's Voi che sapete or Verdi's Di quella pira in some sort of translation, and it was not unreasonable either to counter Wagner's position by arguing that if we would not tolerate the Requiems of these masters in anything but Latin why should we be more accommodating in the case of opera? To attain the emancipation that Wagner wanted, arias had to go, and Berg was not exactly likely to bring them back. That really settles the issue so far as I and Berg are concerned: I cannot even imagine why I would want to struggle with the work in German when I can hear it without effort in my own native tongue.
The performance, the recording and the production in general are admirable. The cast is a large one but I detected no weaknesses. Few of the names were familiar to me, but in the cases where their dates of birth are given I saw that the artists were the age of my own children, so that will be the reason for that. Berg himself gushed that Wozzeck should be sung as if it were Trovatore, and the performers here are careful to keep a sustained musical line, lyric as far as the idiom permits, even in the semi-spoken passages. Paul Daniel directs the great Philharmonia to fine effect, keeping light and air in the orchestral textures and never letting the onward movement sag, and I experienced no problems with the short choral contributions. The sound-quality is admirable, and the liner-note is from the distinguished pen of Lord Harewood, civilised and dignified as we might expect. Now read no further if you have no problems with the work itself.
Berg is regarded, I suppose rightly, as the most approachable exponent of the second Viennese school led by Schoenberg. My own collection of his work also contains the violin concerto, the lyric suite and the piano sonata. All of these compositions leave the same impression on me - not really very demanding in idiom but conveying a great sense that the composer is less than 100% convinced of what he is doing. In life Berg was not one to stand up to the powerful intellect and dominating personality of Schoenberg. I suspect that his purely musical gift was greater than Schoenberg's, but that does not seem any great claim to me, and I feel a tension in him between his timid desire for recognition and his dread of offending the leader of the cerebral and artificial musical movement that he had, for better or for worse, embraced.
There is also the matter of the libretto. This is based on the chaotic manuscript of a play really called `Woyzeck' by one Georg Buechner, a `revolutionary' his lordship tells us, who died at the age of 23. Is the picture just a trifle familiar? I suspect so, and I'm rather less bowled over by it all than the noble Earl is. What is the theme really? Revolutionary manifestations, then and for quite a time later, were focused on the economic exploitation of the working class in line with Marx's analysis. There is certainly exploitation in this script, but of a much more basic and standard kind. Wozzeck himself seems mentally unstable and easy meat for his tormentor the Drum Major, whether the latter's insinuations that he had seduced Wozzeck's woman are true or just drunken braggadoccio. It was Berg himself who mentioned the name of Verdi, and it takes very little effort to spot the real Verdian association, which is not with Trovatore but with Otello - in the final scene above all but conspicuously also in the cry of `Blood blood blood'. In other respects poor Wozzeck is toyed with by Marie and dictated to by an eccentric doctor and a brainless-sounding commanding officer. It is all a reasonable enough opera libretto I do not deny, but I might be able to share Lord Harewood's enthusiasm more fully if I felt that either Buechner or Berg were fully clear in their minds what their message for us is.
It would be a pity if our exploration of musical or any other form of artistic creation limited itself to safe bets and AAA-rated masterpieces, a criterion that from my point of view would exclude a fair amount of Beethoven for one. I like Berg's Wozzeck, I am wholly open to the suggestion that a certain confusion that I associate with it is at least partly my own, and I recommend it strongly in this particular performance. One detail that intrigued me in the story was the short appearance of The Idiot, whose remarks in fact seemed more significant for the plot than those of, say, the Doctor or the Captain. These personages seem more than slightly futile, I believe that is consciously intended by the author whether or not for sound reasons, and it may be that I shall someday come belatedly to the view that Buechner, Berg, Wozzeck and the rest of them are having the last laugh over various other idiots if only we realised.