This is a special accomplishment for Daniel Barenboim, the best opera recording I've ever heard from him and a Wozzeck to join the very best. I had avoided listening to it, expecting nothing special from a live staging in Berlin in 1994 (the premiere under Erich Kleiber took place there in 1925). Franz Grundhaber was also a known quantity in the title role, having recorded it under Abbado in 1988 and sung it almost everywhere, including the Met, for over a decade. But expectations can be foiled, and i this case Barenboim shows a remarkable mastery over the orchestral part. Because it falls int the category of an Expressionist work, Wozzeck is usually performed on the edge of hysteria, with lurid underlinings and bold contrasts. Barenboim takes the bold step of leading the work as if it exists in a shadowy dream world. He adds subtlety and shading in a way that escapes even Abbado, who had the advantage of a world-class pit orchestra in the form of the Vienna Phil.
Grundhaber seems strained and over-emphatic in Abbado's recording, but here, six years later, he's subtler, softer, and more intriguing as the harassed, exploited Everyman crumbling to pieces in a schizophrenic world. My two favorite singers of the role are still Fischer-Dieskau under Bohm (DG) and Walter Berry under Boulez (Sony), but Grundhaber makes a strong, convincing impression, ahead of every other rival. As Marie, Waltraud Meier is unusual in being a dramatic mezzo rather than soprano, but the role is vocally flexible, and she is in good voice, to which she adds her well-known dramatic intensity. This isn't a weepy, lost, or fragile woman but a staunch existential heroine doomed by poverty and the dark turmoil in Wozzeck's mind.
One should also say something about the style of Sprechstimme being adopted. what used to be a daunting task, assigning musical values to words half-sung, half-spoken, has become second nature for modern singers. The various characters are here allowed a wide, flexible range of delivery. Sometimes we hear straight lyrical singing, other times hysterical shouting, and much in between. Graham Clarke, as a nightmarishly insane captain, shrieks like someone out of a German horror movie, while Meier's Marie favors singing, pure and simple. I like the variety that this flexibility allows. But I'm just as impressed by Barenboims many insights into the score, reminding me that he is often at his strongest conducting the Second Viennese School, despite much greater fame in Wagner and Bruckner.
As for the recorded sound, it is remarkably good. The Abbado set suffered by weighing the balance far too much in favor of the orchestra, and at first I had similar fears here, because the shaving scene that opens the opera is place too distantly. But the miking gets rectified, and after the wood-gathering scene with Andres, the sonics are as good as any studio job.