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Erich Kleiber ‘Wozzeck’, London 1953

1953. Royal Opera House, London
Erich Kleiber conducts the Covent Garden Opera in 'Wozzeck', performed in English in 1953
Composer Alban Berg
Conductor Erich Kleiber
Singer Jess Walters
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

Erich Kleiber conducts Wozzeck at Covent Garden

By any assessment, Erich Kleiber counts as one of the supreme conductors of
the 20th century, unsurpassed even among the illustrious collection of those
whose surname begins with ‘K’: Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, Krauss, Karajan,
Keilberth, Krips, Kempe and his own son Carlos (born Karl) Kleiber. Born in 1890 in
Vienna, where hearing Mahler conduct his 6th symphony inspired an ambition
to become a conductor, he completed his musical studies in Prague, teaching
himself piano in order to become eligible for a job in an opera house, starting
in Darmstadt at the age of 22. In 1923, he was chosen as Musical Director of
the Berlin State Opera after an audition performance of Fidelio in a city where
Walter and Klemperer were his resident competitors. He stayed for ten years,
during three of which Klemperer led the rival Kroll Opera. He resigned in 1934
in protest against the racial and cultural policies of the incoming Nazi Party. He
emigrated to Argentina, basing himself at the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires where
he conducted 181 performances of 29 different operas over 10 seasons and
became an Argentinian citizen. After the war, he resumed a European career,
which included performances and recordings in Austria, Germany, Italy,
Netherlands as well as London, and he was in negotiation to return to the
Berlin State Opera in 1955 before his untimely death early in 1956.

Covent Garden’s General Administrator David Webster persuaded Kleiber to
spend significant periods as a guest with the young opera company between
1950 and 1953, despite the opposition of resident Musical Director Karl Rankl,
who resented the special rehearsal conditions which Kleiber demanded. His
impact was immediate. The Decca recording producer John Culshaw
recollected: ‘No one present will ever forget the transformation in the pit
when, in the early 1950s, Erich Kleiber plunged into the Carmen prelude. He
simply made the orchestra play precisely, rhythmically, and with strict dynamic
gradation. The effect, after years of sloppy, routine performances of Carmen,
was a revelation’. Kleiber’s first opera at Covent Garden on 6 December 1950
was Der Rosenkavalier, a litmus test for a burgeoning ensemble which he
continued to develop over subsequent seasons. (Listen to Act 1 from the 1952
revival, also available on Music Preserved). There followed later that month a
new production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and, later in the season,
revivals of Rigoletto, Carmen and The Magic Flute, an impressive range.

The first UK staging of Berg’s Wozzeck was an altogether greater challenge.
Now recognised as perhaps the 20th century’s seminal opera, influencing
Gershwin and Britten among a host of lesser composers, its structural
perfection has seldom been equalled. Not a note is wasted, and the drama of
its no fewer than 100 minutes is a masterly distillation of Georg Büchner’s epic
but fragmented play. Kleiber had conducted the opera’s première in Berlin on
14 December 1925, so was able to impart an unrivalled authority. He also
brought with him the designer Casper Neher, the regular collaborator of
Bertolt Brecht, who was at the Berlin premiere and had designed Carmen and
From the House of the Dead for the Kroll Opera during Klemperer’s tenure. His
marvellously evocative painted sets, which enabled the opera’s 15 scenes to
transition seamlessly, remained a wonder when I first saw the production at its
1960 and 1964 revivals, and stayed in the repertory until 1984.

I learned Wozzeck with the help of the then only extant recording conducted
by Dmitri Mitropoulos with American forces led by the Wozzeck of Mack
Harrell and Marie of Eileen Farrell. In those times, Sprechstimme, in which the
note is begun on pitch but then delivered as spoken, predominated, whereas
today singers tend to treat the music more lyrically. So, it is fascinating to
observe how delicately Kleiber has coached his cast to strike a balance. They
seldom shout or hector. The Brooklyn-born baritone Jess Walters was a
company member between 1947 and 1959, and during the later years I heard
him as Anckarstroem (opposite Jon Vickers’s Gustavus), Luna (with Zinka
Milanov) and Sharpless (with Sena Jurinac). His voice is firmly centred, but
touchingly conveys the vulnerability of the downtrodden Wozzeck. Walters;
Edgar Evans a more heroic Andrès than some; Parry Jones as the maniacal
Captain; Monica Sinclair an incisive Margret; the young Michael Langdon with
his exemplary Sprechstimme for the 1st Journeyman’s drunken ‘sermon’; and
the pungent cameo of Dermot Tree’s Idiot at the end of the tavern scene; were
all nurtured in Kleiber’s Queen of Spades. Only the Australian Marea
Wolkowsky’s full-voiced Marie was new to the cast in 1953 (Christel Goltz had
sung the first run in 1952). Despite the age and fitful quality of the tape, this
Wozzeck must be one of the most precious of Music Preserved’s recordings.

Nicholas Payne
13 June 2024

Alban Berg (1885-1935)


Track 1: Act 1

Track 2: Act 2

Track 3: Act 3


The recording was made from a relay from the Royal Opera House on May 25 1953.

It comes from the Tolansky/Tschaikov Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Jess Walters
  • Marea Wolkowsky
  • Parry Jones
    The Captain
  • Edgar Evans
  • Monica Sinclair
  • Frederick Dalberg
    The Doctor
  • Thorsteinn Hannesson
    The Drum Major
  • Michael Langdon
    First Journeyman
  • Ronald Lewis
    Second Journeyman
  • David Tree
    An Idiot
  • John Cockerill
    A Soldier
  • Eric Mitchell
    A Pianist
  • The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • Children from Kingsland Central School
  • The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
  • Erich Kleiber

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