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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (1912) [36:29]
Johann STRAUSS JR (1825-1899)
Emperor Waltz, Op. 437 arranged Schoenberg (1889/1925) [12:38]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (1949) [9:28]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 (1910) [5:04]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Little Viennese March (1925) [3:20]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19 (1911) [5:31]
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (Sprechgesang, violin); Meesun Hong (violin, viola); Júlia Gállego (flute); Reto Bieri (clarinet); Marko Milenković (viola); Thomas Kaufmann (cello); Joonas Ahonen (piano)
Text in German with translations in English and French
rec. December 2019, Radio Studio Zürich, Switzerland
ALPHA 722 [72:49]

When you learn that Patricia Kopatchinskaja (PatKop as she is known) is doing the Sprechgesang of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, you know it will be controversial and that you have to have a very open mind. If you do, you will not be disappointed with the performance here. To gain the full effect, though, you must also see her live performance with musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic on a late night concert available on their Digital Concert Hall. That said, to wholly appreciate this seminal twentieth-century work, you will undoubtedly need at least one other recording.

Kopatchinskaja had played the violin part in Pierrot lunaire long before she made this recording. She was forced to reduce her violin playing in 2015, due to a bout with tendonitis, and decided to learn the Sprechgesang role and then perform it. She performed the Sprechgesang in a number of concerts before making the recording. Most who do this are singers first, but PatKop viewed herself neither as actress nor singer in learning the part, but as embodying the character of Pierrot. Actually, she has proven herself as quite an actress, in a good sense, to anyone who has watched her play violin. Her singing voice was also successfully put to the test in her “vocalise,” accompanying the violin in the cadenza of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. Indeed, of all the recordings of Pierrot lunaire I know hers is the most theatrical.

As David McDade notes in his review of this new account, others who are celebrated singers, such as Christine Schäfer (with Boulez on DG) can sound too conventional as vocalists. PatKop is anything but that! While Schäfer can seem less involved, relatively distant, and pallid, Kopatchinskaja is vivid and dramatic, with overall clearer diction. At the same time, she is well integrated in the superb playing of the ensemble and is given state-of-the-art sound. She is never boring. However, there are places where her over-the-top performance may be too jarring. Her giggling in the “Gebet an Pierrot” (No. 9), screeching and then whispering in “Die Kreuze” (No. 14), and guttural growling in “Gemeinheit!”) are hard to take, and here the comparatively understated Schäfer is more effective. Of course, there are many other options for this work. Two of the best remain Anja Silja with the Twentieth-Century Classics Ensemble/Robert Craft (Naxos) and Jan DeGaetani with Arthur Weisberg’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (Nonesuch). Indeed, the latter remains for me the benchmark. It was the version that I first heard Pierrot lunaire on LP. DeGaetani with the clearest diction of all masters the Sprechgesang role of “speech-singing” better than any other I have heard. That said, I am certain to return to Pat Kop, who truly inhabits the character, for the ultimate dramatic experience.

The remainder of the disc is very fine. Schoenberg’s seemingly intractable Phantasy for Violin and Piano is vividly brought to life in Kopatchinskaja and Joonas Ahonen’s terrific performance, as are the pithy Webern Four Pieces. Ahonen has the field to himself in Schoenberg’s little piano pieces and compares well with Mitsuko Uchida’s excellent account on a Philips CD that contains her celebrated performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under Boulez. It was imaginative to include two stylistically fin-de-siècle pieces to fill out the programme, especially since Schoenberg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss, Jr’s Emperor Waltz was specifically created for a concert tour of Spain to pair with Pierrot lunaire. I have always loved the Second Viennese School’s Strauss arrangements for chamber ensemble, which for me succeed better than Schoenberg’s enlargement of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet. The ensemble on this new disc obviously relish this waltz and the Kreisler march. They receive rhythmically incisive and warm-hearted performances with plentiful Viennese rubato, and are a good break from the rest of the programme.

To top things off, Alpha has outdone itself with the lavishly presented book that houses the disc. Kopatchinskaja’s spouse Lukas Fierz provides a detailed essay on the history of the Pierrot character and Schoenberg’s work, as well as a briefer discussion of the other composers’ pieces represented. The 90-page book also contains many photos and other art work, and full texts and translations.

Leslie Wright
Previous review: David McDade

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