Friday, 14 November 2014

Wigmore Hall Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Intercontemporain

Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the great new music ensembles, made a welcome return to the Wigmore Hall  London, built around Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire,, with Salomé Haller. With characteristic wit, Ensemble Intercontemporain preceded Pierrot Lunaire with Luigi Dallapiccola Due studi (1946-7) and  Bruno Mantovani Carnaval for clarinet, piano and cello. (2014), enhancing the multiple connections between them. .

As a very young man, Luigi Dallapiccola heard Arnold Schoenberg  conduct Pierrot Lunaire in Florence in 1924.   In Due Studi, written 20 years later, Dallapiccola uses twelve-tone rows, but the influence of Pierrot Lunaire is much more subtle. There are two movements, Sarabanda and Fanfara e fuga.  Tight dialogue between Hae-Sun Kung (violin) and Hidéki Nagano (piano).

Ensemble Intercontemporain did the Wigmore Hall an honour by giving the world premiere of Bruno Mantovani's Carnaval for clarinet, piano and cello. (2014). which will be heard next week at the  Opéra Bastille.  Mantovani is a major figure in new music, greatly respected and widely performed, so this premiere was a significant event. Carnaval evolves over eight sections, each strikingly individual, yet written so tightly that the piece works, as a whole, like a powerful mechanism. "Clarinet and cello battle it out, their weapons adjacent notes - E and F -in a high register. Then they stop." writes Paul Griffiths in superb programme notes worthy of past standards at the Wigmore Hall  "The conflict, however remains, the two instruments  reiterating their points....with glissandos from the cello answered by arabesques from the clarinet". In the second section, the piano dominates, then withdraws as cello and clarinet soar in a heady maelstrom of flying quarter tones. ".....Dynamic wobbles and arpeggios.....luminous flurries and tremolandos are revisited before the music works back to a steady tempo"

Carnaval connects to Pierrot Lunaire in that it evolves through a series of different, and very individual "tableaux" to express something  that can't be articulated in speech but has strikingly vivid dramatic effect. The structure is tightly compressed, intensifying the sense of constant movement and sudden change. Disconcerting, but in a thrilling, satisfying way. Hopefully it will be performed again soon: hardly had the notes trailed off, than I wanted to hear it again, and again. It's that good. Jérôme Comte played the clarinet, Éric-Maria Couturier played the cello and Hidéko Nagano the piano - just three instruments, but they packed a powerful punch. 

When Salomé Haller entered for Pierrot Lunaire, it was almost immediately apparent that the performance would be neither wan nor pallid.  She didn't need to wear a Pierrot costume as did Albertine Zehme, the former actress who created the part for Schoenberg himself.  (See photo at right, where she's not in costume.)  Haller wore a dark suit with a glorious brooch of mother-of-pearl in the shape of two moons, one large, one smaller. At first, she simply presented the music as incantation. We were drawn into this surreal world as if by hypnosis, so that we were responding ourselves to what the songs might "mean" - a more creative process than listening passively. Haller began to "act", in much the way Sprechgesang isn't quite singing nor quite speech. This ambiguity worked well, suggesting stylized formality rather than realism. Is Pierrot real or a creation of the imagination  Who are these other personalities like the blasse Wässerin, the Dandy and the Madonna? The closer one gets to literal meaning, "das Bild des Glanzes zerfloß"

Pierrot Lunaire can turn the idea of narrative song upside down.  In this performance, what struck me was the relationship between voice and instruments that speak without words. Sophie Cherrier's flute sang, as flautists have sung for centuries, from Greek times to the present. When she exchanged flute for piccolo, the sound seemed even more ancient, even more plaintive.  This close relationship revealed the complex  structure that underpin's Schoenberg's creation. Wandering tonality and elusive images are held together on firm, orderly foundations. The songs don't work together as narrative, but reveal ideas constantly re-forming, and changing perspectives.

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