‘Pierrot Lunaire’ Illuminated On Salzburg DVD

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'Pierrot Lunaire' at Salzburg 'Pierrot Lunaire' (Salzburg Festival-Silvia Lelli)
From left, Marina Piccinini, Mark Steinberg, Mitsuko Uchida, Barbara Sukowa, Clemens Hagen and Anthony McGill, performing ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’ (Silvia Lelli, Salzburg Festival)

Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. Concert performance from the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Mitsuko Uchida (piano). Barbara Sukowa (reciter). Marina Piccinini (flute/piccolo). Anthony McGill (clarinet/bass clarinet). Mark Steinberg (violin/viola). Clemens Hagen (cello). Solar Plexus of Modernism: A documentary by Matthias Leutzendorff and Christian Meyer. Belvedere DVD 10130. Total Time: 91:32.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — There is no question that the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 marked the end of the Romantic period in the history of music. One of the principal members of what came to be known as the Second Viennese School of composition, Schoenberg himself had taken Romanticism to its very limits in works like Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande. Had Mahler not died in 1911, he too might have become part of the school and broken completely with the past. Although Schoenberg and his followers didn’t have the power to completely change the course of music in their time — Richard Strauss paid no attention, and Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy went their own way — the music of Strauss, among others, came to be viewed as increasingly anachronistic in the face of Schoenberg’s growing influence.

Belvedere DVD 10130 Pierrot LunaireThe documentary Solar Plexus of Modernism explores the musical character and meaning of Pierrot Lunaire, mainly through interviews with the musicians who took part in the performance given at the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Pierrot Lunaire remains a difficult piece to put together, especially without a conductor, and so each of the six musicians involved had plenty of time to get inside the music and explore what it was all about. Pianist Mitsuko Uchida has always been a “thinking” musician, and that is certainly the case here; she provides analytical insights that require listeners to have a score in front of them.

That said, this documentary is more about the personalities involved in this particular performance than about Schoenberg’s music and how radical it was in 1912. Surely, with a title like Solar Plexus of Modernism, it should have explored Pierrot Lunaire’s historical context more deeply. In 1912, while working on the piece, Schoenberg was still putting the finishing touches on the Gurrelieder, “(his) farewell to the over-ripe late-Romantic world of sound inaugurated by Liszt and Wagner” (Willi Reich: Schoenberg: a Critical Biography). The composer himself was still clearly conflicted.

This performance of Pierrot Lunaire is, without a doubt, among the finest I have ever seen or heard. One of the most original features of the piece is the use of Sprechstimme, or literally “speech melody.” Schoenberg wrote a vocal part for the reciter with specific pitches and rhythms written in the treble clef, which he did not want the performer to sing, as he clearly stated in his preface to the score. He wanted the rhythms and dynamics, he wanted the words, but he wanted the reciter to speak in a manner that only approximated the pitches he had written.

While there is still controversy about what Schoenberg really intended with Sprechstimme, actress Barbara Sukowa gives a highly credible rendering in this performance. She acts out the part in accordance with the composer’s instructions, but never sings. Within the highly unusual and exacting parameters the composer has set for the role of the reciter, Sukowa’s execution of the part is simply amazing, and she does it all from memory. Memorizing Albert Giraud’s abstract poetry would be difficult enough, but to do so with the poetry and the music and coordinate perfectly with five other musicians is a remarkable feat.

For the most part, Sukowa stands in the midst of the seated musicians; however, for one song, Der kranke Mond (The Sick Moon), a duet for reciter and flute, she moves to a spot right next to flutist Marina Piccinini. For much of the song, the flute plays softly in its lowest register and the reciter’s Sprechstimme is confined to the bottom range. With the two performers in close proximity to one another, the effect is one of an intimate dialogue between two human beings. The text conveys the anguish of a passion that is so strong it is virtually suicidal — a Wagnerian “love-death,” if you will — and the music takes on a foreboding character recalling Tristan und Isolde.

The performers, each of whom is a superb solo artist, create an extraordinary ensemble in this performance: Uchida, renowned for the range of colors she can find on a piano keyboard, vividly illuminates Schoenberg’s music; Anthony McGill, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and now principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, offers a consistently singing sound on both clarinet and bass clarinet; Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano Quartet, and cellist Clemens Hagen of the Hagen Quartet, are just as impressive as they make this challenging music consistently beautiful.

For something more: Two of the artists featured in Pierrot Lunaire are prominent in some other recent recordings: Uchida and soprano Dorothea Röschmann offer profound readings of song cycles by Schumann and Berg (Decca 478 8439), and McGill joins the Pacifica Quartet for outstanding performances of quintets by Mozart and Brahms (Cedille CDR 90000 147).

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.

Arnold Schoenberg
“In fact, the influence of Schoenberg may be overwhelming on his followers, but the significance of his art is to be identified with influences of a more subtle kind — not the system, but the aesthetic, of his art.” (Ravel, on Schoenberg)