Prom 59: 3rd September 2001 – Late-night Schoenberg

Schoenberg in 1933

Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21*

Claron McFadden (sprechstimme)*
Nash Ensemble conducted by Pierre-André Valade*


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London


Schoenberg has fared well at the Proms this year, the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Tonight’s late Prom brought together two works which respectively mark the onset of his early maturity, and the end of his Expressionist phase. Quite a contrast over thirteen years, but as Paul Griffiths has remarked, “[Schoenberg’s] development was perhaps more rapid than that of any composer…”.

It’s good to hear the string sextet original of Verklärte Nacht being played more frequently. For all that the string orchestra transcription adds a luxuriant overlay, there’s an intimacy at the heart of this music that it can’t hope to capture. A sense of an outwardly projected narrative pursued through inward-looking expression is fundamental to the originality of Schoenberg’s conception: far more so than the chromatic freedom of what is essentially an orthodox tonal scheme for its period.

During its near-on forty years of existence, the Nash Ensemble has given many performances of the work. The present line-up gave a scrupulously prepared account, making light of the formal cohesion and with an almost sculpted intensity. A touch more abandon in the agitated second section would not have come amiss, but the impact of the reading carried surprisingly well in the expanse of the Albert Hall. Invidious as it may be to mention individual players, Lawrence Power and Louise Williams carried the demanding viola parts – melody line and harmonic support often combined – with absolute conviction.

Pierrot Lunaire followed in teasing contrast. This cycle of three-times-seven melodramas has long attracted the attention – if not necessarily the affection! – of many for whom post-tonal Schoenberg is otherwise out of bounds. The imagery of the verse has an instant fascination, its fantasy world of nightmare and parodistic humour perfectly complemented by the mannered ’speech-song’ – more pantomime than cabaret – and the wonderfully varied timbres that Schoenberg extracts from his groundbreaking chamber ensemble: where would twentieth-century music have been without it?

Claron McFadden got the balance between speech and song about right, though there were signs in the dreamy opening part that she would have enjoyed floating the vocal line with a little more ’sung’ tone. The succeeding sections were judiciously characterised: Schoenberg maintains an objective distance between images and their experience in this work, and McFadden rightly avoided ’angst’ at all times. The Nash gave a more lyrical account of the instrumental writing than might have once been the case, the dense textures of ’Die Nacht’ and ’Rote Messe’ possessing absolute poise and clarity. The tonal inflections of ’O alter Duft’ passing gently into silence made one think on how far this music has insinuated itself into the wider musical consciousness. Maybe in another fifty years, the same will be true of Schoenberg’s output as a whole.

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