Rain, wind and moonlight – Stroma’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and more……


Madeleine Pierard (soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Kirstin Eade (flute/piccolo) / Phil Green (clarinet/bass clarinet)

Blas Gonzalez (piano) / Megan Molina (violin)

Andrew Thomson (violin/viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

HANNS EISLER – 14 Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain)

AMNTON WEBERN – String Trio Op.20


Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 25th November, 2012

Stroma brought up the 100th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark creation Pierrot Lunaire in unique style at Wellington’s Ilott Theatre, as part of a program featuring the music of both pupils and contemporaries of the composer.

Naturally, the concert’s focus centered firmly on Pierrot Lunaire, with the advance publicity’s imagery suggesting a theatrical presentation, one featuring the extremely gifted singer Madeleine Pierard. This performance took up the second half of the program, with Hanns Eisler’s Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain) sharing the first half with Anton Webern’s String Trio.

The Hanns Eisler work was played here in accordance with the composer’s original intention, in tandem with a film. Dedicated to Schoenberg on the occasion of his 70th birthday and scored for the same instrumentation as the master’s Pierrot Lunaire, the music was a manifestation of Eisler’s fascination with and study of music’s relationship to the medium of film. The composer “set to music” an existing silent film, Regen (Rain) made in 1929 in Amsterdam by filmmaker Joris Ivens.  Its montage-like construction featured scenes whose placement suggested a kind of understated interplay between natural elements, mostly rain, and people going about their business in a city.

Completing the first half was Anton Webern’s String Trio Op.20, to the uninitiated, a work presenting the wonder of new sensations, especially the lyrical explorations and variants of the same throughout the first movement, then with the second movement introducing what felt like a more “physical” kind of engagement, stimulated by greater contrasts of timbre and rhythm. Interesting that the performance was “conducted” by Hamish McKeich, something that, for me, added a kind of dimension to the sounds, almost like a life-pulse beneath the contrasting plethora of surface incident.

As for “Pierrot”, it has always been regarded as “new”, even a hundred years after its creation. After the premiere in Berlin in October 1912, with the composer conducting and Albertine Zehme as the vocalist, the musicians took the work around Germany and Austria. A critic after a performance in Augsburg the following month suggested that, in order for people to “understand, enjoy, or at least feel” the work, they would need to grow “ears of the future” – a statement with particular relevance for concert-hall audiences.

It’s a truism that in almost any creative sphere things which seemed like daring, almost anarchic cutting-edge first-up presentations can in many cases become absorbed by the main-stream of forward movement, and their edges rounded-off for more general consumption. Where “shock value” was and is an integral part of a work’s message, this can place extra stress on contemporary performers to try and replicate that essential sense of outrage and anarchy, public or private.

Of course, in a world all-too-accustomed to daily presentations of atrocity and carnage as television news entertainment and much worse (so I’m told) awaiting mere mouse-click activation via the Internet, it’s perhaps the performance-context that then becomes all-important for art-music.

I believe that’s why the “refined order” of the concert-hall and its age-old associations continues to allow music of all eras their specific kinds of impact and impressions. And, with reference to this present concert, even though our ears may have gotten “used” to the relative astringencies of the sounds produced by members of the “Second Viennese School” (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, et al…), in performance situations certain impulses activated by intensities unique to that performance will always have an impact.

Also, one doesn’t underestimate the increased familiarity and better-developed understanding of any work that comes with repeated exposure, a kind of “roundabout” that makes up for the loss of the shock value’s “swing”. This concert afforded us plenty of food for reflection along these lines, the items able to engage us in all kinds of ways and at different levels of receptivity, from surfaces to inner recesses.

Regarding the opening work by Hanns Eisler, I loved the combination of film and music on this occasion (being normally a last-ditch opponent of add-on visual accoutrement to music presentation). Of course, this was different to that, the film being the composer’s original inspiration for his music. On the face of it, fourteen musical vignettes stitched together would, one might think, produce a disjointed hotchpotch of impressions in sound, with no guarantee that the whole would be greater, etc….. But for a variety of reasons we as listeners seemed to be taken out of ourselves and ‘put in touch” with a kind of synthesis of sounds and images throughout, in places cleverly dovetailed, and in others interestingly contrasted in terms of feelings produced.

I could detect no strain, no discomfort or lack of co-ordination regarding the musicians’ performance (expertly duetted, cross-media-style, with the on-screen happenings through Hamish McKeich’s direction). It all seemed as one, the music-making reaching back from its immediate “face” to make the connections, as any piece of music might similarly fuse with aspects of a listener’s previous experience.

In the wake of Eisler’s work Webern’s Op.20 String Trio promised a potentially less immediate and engaging experience for the listener, an expectation that for me was confounded by the austere beauty of the sounds made by the trio of violinist Megan Molina, violist Andrew Thomson and ‘cellist Robert Ibell. Originally intended by the composer as a three-movement work, the surviving two movements seemed complementary, a kind of “air and dance” pairing. A commentator whose analysis I read called the work “jagged and severe”, qualifying the judgement with “yet strangely beautiful and lyrical”. The latter statement came out more readily with these musicians’ playing.

Here were finely-wrought exhalations of breath at the beginning, a gentle flow of movement, angular in places, and flecked with little irruptions and pizzicati impulses. Its companion movement seemed more impulsive, volatile in line and figuration as well as in dynamics, each player in this performance seeming both singer (in places more like “sprechgesang”) and listener, such was the playing’s interactive spirit throughout.

The interval done, Madeleine Pierard took the platform, dressed and made-up as Pierrot and accompanied by Hamish McKeich and the ensemble. She was stationed to one side, well-lit, while the musicians and conductor were in the centre. Immediately behind the group was a backdrop of a screen on which titles, translations and images were played, giving the audience plenty of help regarding the texts of the poems. First impressions were of an immediacy and clarity of utterance from both singer (beautiful diction) and players (beautifully-focused, transparent lines and atmospheric tones). The voice encompassed a frequently startling dynamic range, wonderfully mirrored by similarly explosive accents and contrasts from the players.

I confess I was transfixed by the clarity and focus of it all throughout the first couple of numbers. It actually took me until midway through Part One’s grouping of seven songs to regain my critical senses sufficiently to realize just why it was that Madeleine Pierard’s performance sounded so much more lyrical, wistful and engagingly human than any other singer I’d heard on record (I had never heard the work in concert before). She was actually SINGING a great deal of the text and sustaining many of the pitches of her notes to a greater extent that any other exponents of the role I’d encountered. There was, of course, variation in what I’d previously experienced, to the extent that, without a score it was impossible to plot precisely where Schoenberg had intended his “singer” to sing and where to break into speech, or at least “bend” the note pitches. But this performance was, to my ears, “sung” like no other I’d heard.

The effect was to “humanize” many of the poems’ utterances, and play down the more grotesque, often deranged-sounding modes adopted by the singer. Whether this was how Madeleine Pierard “saw” the work, along with her conductor, Hamish McKeich, or whether it was due partly or wholly to a lack of experience in performing it, resulting in more conventionally accepted modes of utterance being used, I’m not sure. Schoenberg himself was undoubtedly influenced when writing the work by the vocal capabilities of the first person to “create” the role of Pierrot, the actress Albertine Zehme (who, incidentally, chose the poems for the work). I came across a fragment of the correspondence between composer and singer-actress which was revealing:

The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely-controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…..Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart, or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips…..We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the “artistic experience in tone” has taught me this fact.

There was no doubting Madeleine Pierard’s considerable skills in bring this work to life, and her ability to make the words of the poetry pulsate – only in one or two instances did I feel that she hadn’t freed the music completely from the page, partly due to her playing-down the grotesque, spectral element which the sprechgesang mode would have helped emphasise – in Der kranke Mond which concludes the first part, she didn’t quite match the ambience of her flutist Kirsty Eade’s wonderful solo, her voice a shade earthbound, without the suspended gleam of the moonlight’s focus. But what a contrast, then, with her almost primordial, pitch-dark rendering of the following Nacht! – her deep-throated tones redolent of the abyss, as it were. She also captured the out-and-out horror of the Rote Messe, with its “gruesome Eucharist”, though I thought the sound of the words of Die Kreuze, the final song of Part Two, needed more of a certain spectral, “blood-bled” quality, something that more focused sprechgesang would have possibly given. But certainly there was vocal energy and finesse from this artist to burn.

The singer’s costuming and make-up was first-class, as was the organization of the backdrop screen and the timing of the text translations. I did wonder whether her lighting-pool was too unrelieved – some shadow on the face at certain angles would have given some contrast and allowed her a bit of freedom – as it was, every glance and every flicker of expression was laid bare, throughout. Make-up and costume suggested a theatrical statement was being made, and I felt it could have been followed through more strongly and consistently. Again,I don’t know whether Madeleine Pierard’s presentation was “directed” as such by anybody, but she could have been encouraged to incorporate what glances she did give her conductor (understandable in a score such as this!) into a kind of pattern of derangement or moonstruckness – something theatrical, or at least cabaret-like. And I would have liked her lighting to have had SOME shadow, a dark line allowing some facial contouring which she could have used for some respite along with more covert purposes.

Enough! Hang these comments, which matter far less than the fact that Pierrot was here a “tour de force”, a work whose stature was overwhelmingly conveyed by singer, conductor and players. Each of the instrumentalists did splendid things, conductor Hamish McKeich was the music’s flexible but unbreakable anchor-chain, and Madeleine Pierard’s voice gave us its beating heart. Performers and everybody associated with the Stroma team deserve our gratitude for giving us the chance to share so graphically and tellingly in a great work’s hundredth anniversary.


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