19 February 2013

Review: Stroma’s Pierrot Lunaire

Q Theatre Loft, Auckland

Performers: Madeleine Pierard, soprano; Kirstin Eade, flutes; Phil Green, clarinets; Sarah Watkins, piano; Andrew Thomson, violin/viola; Robert Ibell, cello; Megan Molina, violin (Eisler/Webern only); Hamish McKeich, conductor

Carolyn Drake

Stroma’s much-awaited trip to Auckland on Sunday was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and nervous excitement from the audience, a full house: those trying their luck for a ticket at the door were turned away, missing a rare performance of Schoenberg’s classic vocal mindbender, Pierrot Lunaire. Q Theatre made an attractive, if acoustically deficient, venue, and Stroma director Michael Norris provided insightful programme notes, along with a vivid English translation of the German text.

If Pierrot promised surreal drama, Hanns Eisler's soundtrack to Joris Ivens’s film Regen (Rain) seemed an exercise in the mundane, spluttering and meandering through an acerbic, predictable serial score to a strikingly open ending. While the journey felt rather dry in its tightly focused, bustling activity, the destination lifted the music into a more transcendental sphere, washing out the cares of the day with open fifths. There was also a memorable solo turn from pianist Sarah Watkins, who had a chance to showcase her remarkable dexterity and clear tone.

Webern's Streichtrio op. 20 is a platform for his intricate patterning of accumulation and synchronisation; this is a masterwork, and its performance here was lacklustre, with the presence of a conductor deeply distracting and surely unnecessary, one would have thought, for performers of this calibre. Furthermore, the performance did not make the structure clear: apart from the very ending and one or two other moments of absolute clarity, there needed to be a greater awareness of how the phrases and “cadences” were constructed, in order to better project the music in performance. Although wrestling with a dry acoustic, the violin needed more presence.

After the previous two slightly underwhelming offerings, Pierrot Lunaire confronted us with the almost lizard-like figure of Madeleine Pierard, whose German swung and hissed with richly expressive diction. Pierard possesses a surprisingly powerful lower register, which served her well throughout the demanding vocal part, although her sprechstimme was often more sung than spoken. I also wondered whether she had really got to grips with the pitch material, or whether she had purposefully adopted a looser approach to pitching. Just as the string trio in the Webern seemed trapped behind their conductor, Pierard too was at times constrained between the piano and her music stand. For me the theatrical potential of the work was never fully realised. 

The ensemble was generally very tight, with a great blend of tone, although balance was sometimes an issue, with the violin in particular often fighting to be heard over the piano and lower instruments. Of the instrumentalists, cellist Robert Ibell was the undoubted standout, displaying a fearlessness and formidable variety of tone colour even in tackling the most technically difficult passages. Although generally leading the ensemble very precisely, conductor Hamish McKeich sometimes struggled to align the piano and wind/string quartet, and his approach to tempo was simply too laid-back to adequately differentiate the potentially stark characters of the individual movements in Part 1.

If Part 1 lacked some of the rawness and momentum it might have had, Part 2 more than made up for it in an utterly compelling cluster of activity: Nacht's gigantic black moths had a truly frightening menace, the dark and feathery timbre of Ibell's cello periodically devouring the texture, while Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot) featured a maniacally neighing Pierard leading the ensemble into an incisive, cantering Raub (Theft). The ensemble achieved a particularly stunning composite sound in Rote Messe (Red Mass), which balanced perfectly with the following Galgenlied (Gallows Song), whose disconcertingly crisp tone foretold a sudden, precipitous ending.

Part 3 provided a strange, dreamy counterweight to the sustained violence of Part 2, and though the broadly symmetrical structure of the work makes it difficult to sustain the intensity of the second part into the third, Stroma did an admirable job. The final movement, O Alter Duft, wafted by in a beautifully nostalgic haze; even today, a century after its composition, Pierrot still proved confronting, alluring and utterly unique.