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Arnold Schönberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]
10 Mar 2014

Schoenberg and company

With Schoenberg, I tend to take every opportunity I can — at least since my first visit to the Salzburg Festival, when understandably I chose to see Figaro over Boulez conducting Moses und Aron, though I have rued the loss ever since.

Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire, op.21, with works by Dallapiccola, Nono, and Gerhard

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Arnold Schönberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]


Whether that be a matter of travelling to Leipzig to see the brilliant triple-bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas, ‘Moderne Menschen’, or missing out on Leif Ove Andsnes playing Beethoven a couple of miles away at the Barbican, Schoenberg tends to exert a special call. Whether I should have been better off ignoring the call on this occasion remains unclear. Certainly if the standard of the first half of the concert had been repeated in the second, I should have been far better off staying at home. But then a good Pierrot lunaire more or less managed to save the day.

Jane Manning remains a force of nature, having given her first broadcast performance with Pierrot almost fifty years ago, in 1965. No one is ever likely to agree — even with his or her own thoughts, let alone anyone else’s — about how this work ‘should’ be performed. It is far better to allow that different performers bring different qualities to it on different occasions. If truth be told, Manning was probably wise to downplay the sung element in her recitation. The moments, relatively few, when she moved towards song suggested, not surprisingly, a voice that had known better days. And yet, her vast experience — not just of this, but of more than 350 (!) world premieres, a good number of which would have taken inspiration from Schoenberg in one way or another — shone through nevertheless. The words and their possibilities she clearly knew backwards. (Now there is an idea for another Pierrot-ensemble piece.) She knew, in a way composers such as Luigi Nono or Helmut Lachenmann would surely have appreciated, how to make the most of vowels, consonants, the journeys between them. Above all, she appreciated and communicated the strong element of cabaret. Manning’s was in every sense a performance, and all the better for it.

Not, of course, that the reciter is all there is to Pierrot, far from it. Giora Bernstein led a highly musical account from an excellent bunch of players. Perhaps balance was tilted a little too much away from the ensemble, but we have a host of other performances in which we can savour still more strongly what Stravinsky quite rightly considered an instrumental masterpiece. There were virtues aplenty, nevertheless. The passacaglia registered as such as strongly as I can recall, Night eventually obscuring in more than one sense. Dance rhythms made their Viennese impressions without exaggeration, the ‘Heimfahrt’ an especially fine example. Benjamin Baker’s violin and viola playing was perhaps particularly impressive, perfectly attuned to shifting mood and context, but the ensemble as a whole, including Julian Jacobson’s piano, such a relief after the first half, had no weak links.

As for that first half, well… Doubtless Alberto Portugheis’s heart was in the right place. The concert seems to have been his project; he was listed as ‘curator’. But sadly, it marked a triumph of ambition over even rudimentary technical ability; this was piano-playing that would have disgraced many an amateur performance, and may well have been the worst I have heard in a professional context. The opening Zemlinsky’s 1891 Three Pieces for cello and piano would most likely have done the composer no favours in a stronger account. Apparently rediscovered recently by Raphael Wallfisch — I am placing my trust in a programme note which, in many respects, proved otherwise highly fallible — they are at best apprentice works, straining towards, yet never coming remotely close to Brahms. Here, Portugheis and, much to my surprise, Rohan de Saram sounded as if they were sight-reading. There was little or no sense of musical collaboration; indeed, the players fell noticeably out of sync on more than one occasion. De Saram fared better in Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo, and Adagio, though even when playing solo, it took him a while to get into his stride, the chaconne initially hesitant. At least, though, the performance offered some sense of the stature of the piece, its dodecaphonic lyricism and structural integrity a wonderful introduction to this appallingly neglected composer.

Nono’s ¿Donde estás, hermano? was provoked — the composer spoke of his need for such a ‘provocation’ to compose, to bear witness — by the ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. The music comes from Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco, no.2, but here without electronics. (Not that one would have known from the programme, which bathetically informed us that Nono had ‘strongly-held political views’.) The vocal quartet — Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili, Katie Coventry, and Anna Migalios — seemed excellent. Alas, their performance was compromised by Portugheis’s insistence on conducting; they would surely have better off without. Plodding and without technique, Portugheis’s contribution was summed up by his score falling off the music stand towards the end. As for his solo rendition of Gerhard’s Don Quixote dances, the first opened quite strongly. At last, I thought, we might hear something from him equating to a real performance. I should not have tempted fate. Much of the rest sounded closer to a bumbling amateur’s initial read-through. From time to time, some sense of rhythm or pulse emerged, only roundly to be defeated.

Sadly, then, I was reminded of Boulez’s observation about the self-defeating nature of the occasional performances of music by the Second Viennese School in his youth. The technical standard had been so poor that they did more harm than good, an incitement to him to mount his own performances, leading to the foundation of the Domaine musical. If only, if only…

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Jane Manning (reciter); Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili (sopranos); Katie Coventry (mezzo-soprano); Anna Migalios (contralto); Benjamin Baker (violin/viola); Rohan de Saram (cello); Susan Milan (flute/piccolo); David Campbell (clarinets); Julian Jacobson, Alberto Portugheis (piano); Giora Bernstein (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, Tuesday 4 March 2014.

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