Schoenberg and company

Whether that be a matter of travelling to Leipzig to
see the brilliant triple-bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas, ‘Moderne
, 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 øDonde est·s, 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.

image_description=Arnold Schˆnberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire, op.21, with works by Dallapiccola, Nono, and Gerhard
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Arnold Schˆnberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]