PCM7: Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with Christine Schäfer

Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Pierrot Lunaire

Christine Schäfer (Sprechstimme)

Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute & piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet & bass clarinet), Marianne Thorsen (violin), Andriy Viytovych (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Lucy Wakeford (harp) and Ian Brown (piano)]
Martyn Brabbins [Schoenberg]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 August, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The penultimate Proms Chamber Music recital of the season consisted of two pieces written three years apart yet separated by a seemingly vast cultural gulf.

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovChristine Schäfer. Photograph: onyxclassics.comWith its intuitive fusion of cabaret and art-song, Pierrot Lunaire (1912) can arguably be thought of as Schoenberg’s most influential work and its centenary this year was ripe for the marking. Seasoned Proms-goers may well recall a remarkable account by actress Barbara Sukowa during the 1989 season, while Christine Schäfer brought it to these concerts a decade later. The present performance suggested a relative darkening of timbre – ideal for the nightmarish vision in the central part of these ‘‘thrice times seven melodramas’’ that ranges from the ominous dread of ‘Nacht’ to the stark despair of ‘Die Kreuze’, though the violence of the climactic ‘Rote Messe’ felt a little too reined-in. The (mostly) deft irony of the first part was hardly less well conveyed – notably the inward evocation of ‘Eine bläse Wäscherin’ and aching poise of ‘Der kranke Mond’, while the third part was arguably the highlight in its traversal from the hollow sentiment of ‘Heimweh’ to the pained remembrance of ‘O alter Duft’ with its fleeting sense of tonal as well as expressive arrival. The contribution of the Nash Ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and piano) was as evident in emotional impact as in attention to detail (notwithstanding an occasional blurring of texture), with Martyn Brabbins’s direction a model of unobtrusive clarity.

Barely two years on, Schoenberg was hymning the greatness of Teutonic culture while the ailing Debussy was radically reappraising the innate French-ness of his own music. Just how far apart – or not – the composers were had already been thoughtfully posited by the latter’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915). First in an intended series of six chamber sonatas, of which only three had been completed at his death, its three movements are a reassertion of Classical formal principals from the vantage of a diffused yet never diluted post-Impressionism. This reading was as alert to its elegance of structure as to its eloquence of manner, making an unlikely but hardly inapposite preparation for what was to follow.

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