Schoenberg

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Arnold Schoenberg
LABELS: Belvedere
ALBUM TITLE: Schoenberg
WORKS: Pierrot Lunaire; Solar Plexus of Modernism (a documentary)
PERFORMER: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Barbara Sukowa (sprechgesang), Marina Piccini (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Mark Steinberg (violin), Clemens Hagen (cello); film by Leutzendorff & Meyer
CATALOGUE NO: Belvedere 10130

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It was Stravinsky who described Schoenberg’s settings of poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire as ‘the solar plexus as well as the mind of early 20th century music’ – though he admitted it was more the unprecedented range of contrapuntal textures and colours that Schoenberg drew from his five players than the vocal part that impressed him when he first heard the work in 1912.  Schoenberg set the words to wide-ranging phrases of exact pitches, but insisted these should be spoken, not sung, with the voice just touching the pitches before moving away, and performers have striven to reconcile these requirements ever since.

In this DVD, vividly performed by a line-up led by Mitsuko Uchida at the 2011 Salzburg Festival, the reciter is the distinguished actress Barbara Sukowa. She projects the surreal intensity of the texts, is pretty faithful to Schoenberg’s rhythms and manages to be on pitch for the few notes he asks to be actually sung. But elsewhere, she is not only wide of the relative rise and fall of Schoenberg’s notation but frequently contradicts his instructions. It sets this release at a significant disadvantage to those by such vocalists as Christine Schäfer, Anja Silja and Jane Manning.

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The documentary does a decent enough job sketching the work’s creation, includes evocative early film footage of Berlin and reminiscences by Nuria Schoenberg, Nono and Lawrence Schoenberg, but is mainly given over to interviews with the performers on the work. Given the title, some material on influence of Pierrot Lunaire on subsequent modern music would have been welcome. Bayan Northcott