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Seen and Heard Concert Review


The Sound of Colour: Soloists / Almeida Ensemble / Richard Bernas (cond.) Almeida Theatre, London. 05.07.2006 (ED)

Der Traurige Mönch: Richard Angas (reciter)
Elégie No.1

Schoenberg Herzgewächse, Op.20: Eileen Hulse (sop) Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21: Sally Burgess (mezzo)

Mike Ashman (director)
Conor Murphy (designer)
Paul Keogan (lighting designer)

Attending this concert barely a few hours after seeing the exhibition that it accompanies; ‘Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction’ at the Tate Modern (see review), I was only too aware of the painter as a silent protagonist in proceedings here. To all intents and purposes the major work in the concert was Pierrot Lunaire, presented in a staging directed by Mike Ashman;however that is not to demean the individual importance or interest of the other works.

Liszt’s rarely performed melodrama Der Traurige Mönch, scored for piano and reciter, established something of a suspended, eerie atmosphere that was even more effective because of the intimacy shared by performers and audience. Richard Angas, dressed in black, appeared suitably apparition-like against the Almeida’s black backdrop, to recite Nikolaus Lefanu’s text of ‘The Woeful Monk.’ This he did with some urgency, although he brought a flatness of tone to bear in his voice at times that chilled the air with its words, finding much that was musical within the poetry in the process. Against this, Liszt’s piano part weaved and whirled to call up ghosts of its own – most notably that of Richard Wagner. Tristan und Isolde was but a thought away thematically, yet the sparseness with which the piano commented upon or drew inference from the text lent a wry humour to the death-laden scene.

Elégie No.1, scored for the unlikely combination of harp, cello, harmonium and piano, in some ways continued the mood, though exhibited very different characteristics in the writing. Cast more fully in the last throes of Romanticism, the work aired a short mournful cello introduction before giving way to a decidedly Brahmsian passage. That these forces to some extent dominated proceedings against the more ethereal yearnings of both harp and harmonium served to emphasise that Liszt’s over-riding aim was the creation and maintenance of musical stasis – one seemingly without beginning or end, but, as with the work of many painters, caught in its own abstraction.

Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse, op.20, brought Kandinsky back into the picture, as it were. The short score, covering barely four pages of manuscript paper, was originally published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac in 1912, and was the product of some correspondence between the two artists. If theoretically it sought to capture a refraction of colours in sound, in performance the piece veered almost towards dysfunction with its strangely obsessive repeated basic tempo. That the performance carried the intimacy that is needed was positive, that Eileen Hulse struggled with the fearsomely difficult vocal line took away from the experience a little. But then, I wondered, just how performable is the work intended to be if the soprano is given a high F marked pppp with no time or leading vocal line to prepare it?

Much more effective in terms of bringing out expressionistic cross-references between music and colour was Mike Ashman’s staging of Pierrot Lunaire. Ashman and conductor Richard Bernas went to great pains in trying to approximate the atmosphere and effects of Pierrot’s original stagings, given in pan-German tours by the formidable singer/actress Albertine Zehme. That Zehme had in her time studied both Brünnhilde and Kundry at Bayreuth with Cosima Wagner says much for her vocal abilities and neatly counters the myth that she sought from Schoenberg a vehicle from that might have been more suited to the vocal ‘talents’ of a Florence Foster Jenkins.

For all the work’s internal obsessions with neurosis and numerology this was a profoundly musical performance, given a searing intensity by the interpretation of Sally Burgess. Just as the vocal part darts between speech and song, resting largely in the hinterland of Sprechstimme, immediacy of facial expression and acting aided a wider exploration of the text. That references in costume were made to Pierrot’s clown-history were enough, but that they cast the figure (Burgess appeared strangely androgynous) in a universal light proved all the more disturbing. True to Zehme’s stipulation the instrumental forces were obscured from view by a large screen – a central breach in which allowed for only fleeting communication between the performers. All the potential difficulties did not impede Bernas’ judiciously chosen tempi or the clarity of playing he drew from the small band.

Light, though, served as the unifier in this performance, in that it picked up on textual elements – representations of the moon at appropriate moments – or that by its use an extra layer of meaning might be drawn from text or music. Schoenberg must have known about Kandinsky’s short stage-play Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound) written for the Blaue Reiter Almanac, with its use of coloured lighting to create atmospheres around the specific musical notes and textures. Paul Keogan, the lighting designer, did much the same here with evocative purples, blood-reds and watery blues of unfathomable depth. By these tones he brought us to the verge of a gesamtkunstwerk so absorbing yet intimate of scale as to be almost more effective than anything created by Wagner in its ability to change listeners in the course of hearing . More so than is often the case when given in concert, Pierrot Lunaire had re-discovered some of its ability to shock.

Evan Dickerson


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