Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire; Pelléas und Mélisande

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Koch
WORKS: Pierrot lunaire; Pelléas und Mélisande
PERFORMER: Anja Silja (soprano); Philharmonia Orchestra, Twentieth-Century Classics Ensemble/Robert Craft
CATALOGUE NO: 3-7471-2
Despite the dated expressionist shock-tactics of its text, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire remains haunting and fascinating: a fabulously imaginative atonal masterpiece, from the days before Schoenberg strapped himself into the straitjacket of the 12-note system. Anja Silja’s performance is impressive in a grandly detached kind of way, but she hasn’t the range of expression or the electricity of Christine Schäfer in Boulez’s DG recording. And while she doesn’t exactly sing the notes Schoenberg marks as Sprechstimme (the heightened, exaggerated speech of ringmasters and music-hall MCs), she is too careful in the way she pitches some of it. Robert Craft writes that ‘the pitch functions of the recitation are essential to the melodic-harmonic conception of the piece’, but I’m not quite convinced. If there’s one thing I’m sure Schoenberg didn’t want it’s cautious precision – or near-precision.

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Pelléas und Mélisande is a strange piece, halfway between the generous Romanticism of Verklärte Nacht and the tortuous chromaticism of the atonal period. It has some fine moments, especially towards the end, but in Craft’s performance it’s hard to get a sense of how the music evolves, and the elaborate polyphony often seems over-dense, despite an admirably unfoggy recording. Boulez’s Erato version makes more sense of it, dramatically and texturally – and (this may surprise one or two readers) his Pelléas is the more Romantic in expression and effect; the worlds of Mahler and Richard Strauss don’t seem so very far away. Stephen Johnson