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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21 (1912) [39:32]
Solar Plexus of Modernism - Documentary by Matthias Leutzendorff and Christian Meyer [52:00]
Barbara Sukowa (sprechgesang), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Marina Piccinini (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Mark Steinberg (violin), Clemens Hagen (cello).
rec. live, Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festival, 2011
BELVEDERE DVD 10130 [91:32]

Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, his “3x7 poems” for speaker and small ensemble, was composed in 1912, so the 2011 Salzburg Festival saw pianist Mitsuko Uchida, actress Barbara Sukowa, and a hand-picked international ensemble, perform the work for its centennial. It was acclaimed by audience and critics, and this DVD preserves that occasion. Along with the live concert recording, a documentary film was made during the Pierrot rehearsals at Schloss Elmau in Salzburg on the work’s historical, contextual and musical exegesis.

Not every performance, even at Salzburg, is necessarily worth recording and issuing, but this one certainly was. First, the vocal contribution is from an actress, not a singer. The composer’s initial commission came from an actress and elocutionist - Albertine Zehme of Berlin - for a melodrama, or settings for reciter and piano, which was joined in the final score by other instruments. The vocal line is in Sprechstimme, (“speech-song”), in which the pitches are suggested by the reciter but the rhythm, phrasing and dynamics are performed precisely. Singers have often usurped the role, with a tendency for more song than speech at times. We know that is not what Schoenberg wanted generally since the score occasionally marks some notes as gesungen, “to be sung”, implying that singing was not the norm. Here we have something close, one imagines, to that original conception, as Barbara Sukowa is an excellent diseuse (“speaking voice” is the description on the DVD) enacting the whole range of the piece from the intimate and eerie to the wild and unhinged.

There is great value in actually seeing a performance of Pierrot Lunaire, since there is an element of theatre in the work with the poems essentially a monologue for Pierrot, the commedia dell’arte clown character. The commissioner and first reciter played the work in Pierrot costume, with the players and Schoenberg, who conducted, behind a curtain. This performance does not imitate that, but has the requisite sense of a sort of expressionist cabaret. The instrumentalists are all excellent, accurate and expressive, the camera-work making the concentration required clearly visible. The sound is very good too.

On the accompanying documentary Solar Plexus of Modernism Mitsuko Uchida and the other musicians speak of the brilliant scoring for their instruments and the great emotions they constantly encountered during the performance. The composer’s descendants Nuria Schoenberg Nono (b.1932) and Lawrence Schoenberg (b.1941) present a variety of original materials from the time when Pierrot was written. Uchida is her usual compelling self when talking about music, and recalls how, when she told Boulez that they planned to do it without conductor, he responded “it’s better that way”. She speaks here in German but there are subtitles – or at least there are for the documentary, since the main flaw of the issue is the lack of English (or even German) subtitles for the performance. This really was a missed opportunity. To have to consult a text — which is not provided anyway — instead of just looking at the screen for text and the filmed performance, is an irritation at the very least.

The main rival is an issue on an Arthaus Musik DVD (10330/10331) which does have subtitles, but is quite different in conception. It is a film called “One Night, One Life”, directed by Oliver Herrmann. It's not a concert performance but shows Pierrot (Christine Schäfer, seen throughout, but not always seen to sing) wandering through a series of urban nightscapes: abattoir, rail station, peep-show, supermarket. There are twenty-one such scenes, one for each poem, and the result is an effective way into the work’s surreal and sometimes disturbing world. That DVD has Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain in the performance familiar from its DG incarnation on CD. The DVD also has a performance by Schäfer of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, given a similarly provocative treatment.

For most collectors of DVDs interested mainly in the Schoenberg, the Belvedere issue will still be the more desirable item, even though non-German speakers will need to obtain a text and translation to get full value from this excellent performance.

Roy Westbrook


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