29 July 2009
Sydney // NSW // 25.07.2009
What's a 97-year-old piece doing on a program promoted by the New Music Network? In the case of Arnold Schoenberg's grand-guignol cabaret Pierrot lunaire, there are plenty of reasons. The piece is a landmark in post-Romantic music – a kind of early modernist shibboleth. It contains the first important use of sprechstimme (a vocal style somewhere between speech and song), it paved the way for modern music theatre, and it brought pastiche, parody and the blackest of humour firmly into the domain of serious concert music. More prosaically, though no less importantly, it established the mixed ensemble (winds, strings and piano) as a 20th-century-music staple. But above all, Pierrot lunaire is a work that constantly renews itself. I first chanced upon a recording as a baffled fifteen-year-old. I have since heard it live many times. I have analysed it, written, lectured and broadcast about it. I've conducted performances in German and English. My CD shelves hold at least ten different recordings of the piece. I know it backwards. And part of me remains baffled. As the American composer and author George Perle wrote, Pierrot is not a piece we ever get used to.
One reason for this is that the reciter's approach to the vocal part is pretty much up for grabs. The composer, alas, was no help. His score contains precisely notated pitches that make utter sense in terms of harmony and counterpoint. His written preface advocates the reciter lightly touching each note before sliding to the next. But the recording he conducted in 1940 contains neither the right notes nor the sliding. As a consequence, no one really knows how much of Pierrot should be sung and how much spoken. The colleague sitting beside me at the performance by the mezzo-soprano Nadia Piave and the KAMMER Ensemble grumbled, 'She sang too much'. Personally, I could have stood more singing.
Piave's vocal characterisation is undeniably a work in progress, but she generated plenty of atmosphere, her German diction was clear and she does a nice line in wistfulness. Of course there's more to Pierrot than that. The 21 numbers veer from the starkly ironic to the stark raving mad and neither was in much evidence here. In the big moments, Piave was overpowered by the ensemble where one longed for her to come screeching over the top. Details went missing. At the end of 'Der kranke Mond', where Schoenberg wrote rests between the final wobbly quavers, she created a kind of legato. And while her pitches were seldom accurate (the composer's own recording suggesting that he mightn't have cared), the rhythms too were sometimes wrong, nowhere more glaringly than in the slow rant that opens 'Die Kreuze'.
In 1912, the first performance of Pierrot lunaire was preceded by 40 rehearsals. It remains a fiendishly virtuosic piece for reciter and players alike and, despite its shortcomings, this rather careful performance conducted by Paul Stanhope contained many genuine felicities. I hope they keep performing it.
In a cleverly constructed program, Stanhope's own music had brought the first half of this concert to a close. Love Lines is a large-scale song cycle that will have its first performance at next month's Bangalow Festival. What we heard here, sung by Piave, were four numbers from it that the composer calls 'cabaret songs'. While one might, in general, wish that composers would leave the tango alone, it was a nice conceit to use the dance form to wrap Robert Herrick's Jacobean erotica, 'Delight in Disorder'. In the 'Drinking Song' to anonymous Elizabethan words, the inebriated vocal line lurches, swoops and dives. Piave pulled it off effortlessly. After a darkly touching Leunig song, Stanhope's setting of e.e. cummings's 'sweet spring is your / time is my time is our / time' was all chugging syncopation and triads. The performance was first-rate and if there was perhaps a little too much cuteness (the second song ending with a high squeak from the clarinet, the third with piano strings impersonating a twanging mattress), one assumes that in their rightful context, amid the 'more serious movements about love, life and loss' that Stanhope promises us, they will fulfil their proper function as light relief.
Not that light relief was entirely inapproporiate in this context, Stanhope's songs following on from the intensity of Wolfgang Rihm's Fremde Szenen I. I'm not sure I've ever seen a piano trio conducted before, but here the clarinettist John Lewis beat time for James Cuddeford (violin), Daniel Yeadon (cello) and Stephanie McCallum (piano), freeing them from the drudgery of counting to concentrate on providing the extremes of ensemble attack that Rihm demands in this, the first of his trios inspired by Schumann. Rihm is a thorough-going Romantic. He is also an original. Octaves and unisons, fifths and thirds sound new minted. Tremolos and ostinatos, fragments of half-remembered folk songs and half-forgotten 19th-century piano works tumble out. We recognise these musical objects, but only dimly. And it all adds up, forming the kind of extreme emotional statement that Rihm typically and unapologetically presents. There's no irony here, and nothing 'neo' either. It was a brilliant performance.
The concert began with another premiere by one of the night's performers. James Cuddeford's misleadingly titled Three Capriccios are not the light-hearted whimsies one might reasonably expect. These duos for flute and clarinet, expertly played by the KAMMER Ensemble's core members, Lisa Osmialowski and John Lewis, last a quarter of an hour and are hyper-intense. United by the sudden appearances of a fast, scalic flourish (Cuddeford calls it a 'signal'), the movements explore limited musical material, prodding it, toying with it, refusing to let it off the hook. It was the same with his audience. Our attentions were held. Where Rihm breathed new life into the simplest harmonic building blocks, Cuddeford explored odd fingerings, yielding plentiful microtones and (I think) a few gentle multiphonics. There was even, at one point, a little flurry of key clicks from the clarinet. Avant-garde clichés in the hands of so many composers, here they sounded as fresh as Rihm's octaves and fifths. Cuddeford is a very good violinist (and, it turns out, violist), but he will, I suspect, soon be an important composer.
Works by Cuddeford, Rihm, Stanhope, Schoenberg
Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW
25 July 2009
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and broadcaster. Among his awards is the Geraldine Pascall Prize for critical writing
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