Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 4. Monday, April 8, 1963
Schoenberg Rehearsal: "Pierrot Lunaire"—Arnol Schoenberg Played by the James Robertson Ensemble
Listeners who criticise music of the twentieth century frequently have much reason to reject performances of such musical works as being senseless and confusing. Not because the music itself Is bad, but rather that the performance it is given may be dull, incoherent and under-rehearsed And whilst one may play Mozart, or Handel, or (possibly) Beethoven in a muddled fashion and still make some sense of the music, such incompetence is quickly revealed in an inadequate performance of new music.
These remarks were prompted by my listening to a recent rehearsal of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" by the James Robertson Ensemble in the University Music Room. Here was a complex, not particularly modern work, being closely studied by a small group of musicians. A valuable experience, one which should be repeated to more widespread audiences as the future may permit.
The instrumentalists were finer as a group than as individual soloists. At the rehearsal, the cello cadenzas did not appear to be as precise as they ought to have been.
But the ensemble playing in No 13, "Beheading," conveyed exceptional strength and vigour, collapsing with unearthly lassitude as the voice ceased.
The faintly irresponsible fifth poem, "Chopin Waltz," provided a bizarre and purposefully shopworn interlude in a small group of gentle, lyrical movements. These included a very beautifully played poem entitled "Night" (a passacaglia built on a tiny three-note motif).
But the endings to many of the more fiery movements could have been more aggressive. A piercing piccolo scream at the end or "Gallows Song" has its counterpart in other poems, but this element in the work tended to be neglected.
The performers presented a forceful "Pierrot," catching all the morbidity of the music; sometimes letting a more bucolic element arise. The admirable rhythmic impulse (despite the odd disparity) with which James Robertson conducted cave immense vigour to the playing.
Here, particularly. Margaret Nielsen handled the awkward piano music with knowledgeable enthusiasm. Rosemary Rogatsy singing directly to us (and not through a sound system as at the Chamber Music Concert) gave a moving portrait of the music—and; it was good to be following her without the inevitable distractions, of the formal concert hall.
"Pierrot Lunaire," written in 1912, is a song cycle of 21 poems for several instruments and singer.; Subtitled a melodrama, the words convey a scenario of sustained misery and horror. The emotional; centre of this atonal music is in; the voice-part—one hesitates to; call it a singing part, for Schoenberg does not choose to restrict the "singer" to a precise pitch.
Instead, he attempts to approximate the rise and fall of the natural speaking voice, a proceeding that is of questionable success
Although she rendered a fiendishly difficult vocal part with authority, Rosemary Rogatsy was consistently well below the approximate pitch that Schoenberg demands. But the concluding portion of the poem "Sick Moon" (flute and voice duet) was a superb example of the pathos of the singing.
The poem "Homesickness" was also memorable for its introspective vocal part, surrounded by strange scraps of melody slipping from one instrument to another.
Footnote: Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" received what is thought to be the New Zealand premiere at a Wellington Chamber Music Concert the following night, Tuesday, March 12, over 50 years after it first appeared.