Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire; Phantasie, etc review

Pierrot Lunaire is one of Schoenberg’s most enduring and influential works, one of the pinnacles of modernism and musical expressionism. These 21 settings for reciter and ensemble of hallucinatory poems by Albert Giraud were commissioned in 1912 by a Viennese actor, Albertine Zehme, but though Schoenberg’s score does not define the gender of the protagonist – it simply specifies “reciter” – the cycle is generally performed nowadays by female singers. Tog one of the most successful recordings of Pierrot features a German actor, Barbara Sukowa, and now we have a version in which a violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, takes the solo part.

Kopatchinskaja apparently first performed the role when a bout of tendinitis prevented her from playing the violin, and it’s since become one of her regular party pieces. As you’d expect from such an outstanding musician, her performance is impressively accurate, the realisation of the dreunsang spot-on in rhythm and pitch, while the playing of the hand-picked ensemble around her is equally precise; apparently sometimes in live performances she plays the violin as well as reciting, but here she has confined herself to the reciter’s role.

But other aspects of her approach certainly won’t be to all tastes, for she certainly pushes the idea of what expressionism can be to its extremes. In some numbers she gets it just right, conjuring up the precise world of menace and phantasm that Giraud’s texts evoke, but too often her little-girl squeaks and faux tantrums are just intrusive, so that the effect is more childish showing-off than a convincing evocation of the Pierrot world. The rest of the disc features Kopatchinskaja the violinist, in Schoenberg’s late, gritty Phantasy for violin and piano (another over-the-top performance) and a beautifully controlled account of Webern’s Four Pieces Op 7, while she also leads the ensemble in Strauss’s Emperor Waltz (in Schoenberg’s arrangement) and Fritz Kreisler’s Little Viennese March. It’s a real mixed bag, perhaps one for Kopatchinskaja fans only.

Berio to Sing is Harmonia Mundi’s attractive, accessible collection of Luciano Berio’s works for voices, with the mezzo Lucile Richardot en Les Cris de Paris, directed by Geoffroy Jourdain. It begins with Sequenza III for female voice, which Berio composed for his first wife Cathy Berberian, and ends with one of the last pieces he wrote, in 2002, E Si Fussi Pisci, an a cappella arrangement of a Sicilian love song. There’s also O King, the tribute to Martin Luther King that became a movement of his orchestral Sinfonia, Cries of London, originally written for the King’s Singers, and one of his best-known works, die 1964 set of Folksongs, some authentic, some invented, for mezzo and ensemble, in which Richardot’s performance doesn’t quite have the immediacy and pungency of Berberian’s unforgettable recording, but like the rest, it’s impeccably done.

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