Pierrot Lunaire

Schoenberg, arr. Webern
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9
Chansons madécasses
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21

Ailish Tynan (soprano)

Christine Schäfer (soprano)

Ulysses Ensemble [Emily Beynon (flute), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Ulrika Anima-Mathé (violin), Alasdair Tait (cello) & Noam Greenberg (piano)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 March, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Schoenberg may not be exactly in vogue these days (has he ever been?), and yet performances of “Pierrot Lunaire” are more numerous (at least in the UK) than ever before. Part of the work’s enduring appeal must be the leeway afforded to its soloist: just a few months after Barbara Sukowa’s riveting account came one from Christine Schäfer from the opposite end of the interpretative spectrum.

A sung performance though it may have been, Schäfer’s in no sense offered a more reticent or less encompassing perspective. In place of the skewed cabaret as captured by Sukowa, the work’s virtual reinvention of the song-cycle was brought into focus – with the repetition and variation inherent in each melodrama underlined and given a differing emphasis according to the intrinsic nature of each – and their position within the overall cycle. Thus in ‘Part One’, the liquid elegance of ‘Mondestrunken’, the barbed whimsy of ‘Eine blasse Wäsherin’ and (especially) the lunging fervency of ‘Madonna’ were vividly evoked, before the wistful lament of ‘Der kranke Mond’ made for a tellingly understated close.

If ‘Part Two’ commenced with a less than unnerving ‘Nacht’, the intensifying horror of the ‘Rote Messe’ – ‘Galgenlied’ – ‘Enthauptung’ sequence was palpably conveyed, Schäfer keeping enough in reserve to make ‘Die Kreuze’ the raw catharsis it needs to be. Tension then dropped appreciably at the start of ‘Part Three’, with ‘Heimweh’ too sluggish to be sensuous, but ‘Gemeinheit!’ had the right deprecating irony and ‘Parodie’ was a tour de force of manic precision. The last three numbers were securely but also imaginatively handled, so that the gentle pathos ‘O alter Duft’ came not just as a final winding-down of tension but also as an ‘anti-apotheosis’ of the work’s formal and expressive preoccupations.

Not the least attribute of this performance was the playing of the Ulysses Ensemble, its members’ all-round sensitivity to the finest shades of characterisation ensured a much-needed (and too rarely achieved) parity with the voice – underlining the musical as well as conceptual uniqueness of this singular piece.

It made sense to open the programme with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony in Webern’s transcription for the same instrumental quintet that accompanies ‘Pierrot’ (and which partnered the latter work in what must have been a memorable concert in Barcelona during 1925). Although the balance between wind and strings in Schoenberg’s original has been unfairly criticised, it does present problems in the assimilation of so densely thematic a piece such as is all but removed by the present arrangement; one in which Webern, typically, reconfigures the musical texture so that the degree of ‘filler’ is not only minimal but also diffused across the ensemble as a whole. The performance itself was a fine one – setting a swift overall tempo but easing up sufficiently as the content requires and ensuring that the drawing together of motivic threads in the coda brought with it a decisive sense of resolution.

Between these milestones of early twentieth-century music, Ravel’s “Chansons madécasses” risked being overwhelmed. That these settings were not was thanks in large part to Ailish Tynan who, taking over the performance from Schäfer at short notice, evinced an alluring tone ideal for the distanced ecstasy of ‘Nahandove’ and the teasing sensuousness of ‘Il est doux’. Between them, the heartfelt sentiment of ‘Aoua!’ was conveyed in ringing tones: who would have thought that, in a century that produced a great deal of ‘protest music’, a song by Ravel ranks among the genre’s most uncompromising statements?

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