With a watchmaker’s precision: putting together a seminal work of 20th-century music

"Pierrot lunaire" marks a turning point in the creative life of Arnold Schoenberg. One of the greatest innovators in 20th-century music, Schoenberg wrote this work for small chamber ensemble and voice, whereby he introduced a new vocal technique reminiscent of the late 18th and early 19th-century melodrama: the "Sprechgesang." The recitalist half sings and half speaks the poems by Albert Giraud in Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation. Stravinsky was so impressed by the work that he called it the “solar plexus” of 20th-century music. It ushered in a new style of short, lightly scored theatrical works such as Stravinsky’s own "L’histoire du soldat." The use of atonality and Sprechgesang also presaged the later use of such techniques to express alienation and violence.


Performed by a small group of exceptional musicians headed by the program’s "mastermind," the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, the performance of "Pierrot lunaire" also features German screen star Barbara Sukowa as the recitalist. The concert was recorded at the Haus für Mozart at the Salzburg Festival and is available from Clasart Classic. Produced by Matthias Leutzendorff and conceived by Christian Meyer, this documentary features interviews and conversations with the performers and other specialists recorded in Salzburg and at Elmau Castle in Bavaria.


Particularly illuminating are the conversations with pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who explains the fear and trepidation that is expressed in the music and that must have been felt by Schoenberg himself, since he kept offering his revolutionary new atonal works to audience who were not yet ready to appreciate them. “He couldn’t help it!” laughs Uchida. Her revealing comments on the music ensure a comfortable approach to this challenging program.


The instrumentalists Marina Piccinini, Anthony McGill, Mark Steinberg and Clemens Hagen also provide enlightening comments, as well as Barbara Sukowa, who impressively shows how she seeks to sculpt and hone every last note in the work. Particularly interesting are the thoughts expressed by Schoenberg’s children Nuria Schoenberg Nono and Lawrence Schoenberg, who both warmly praise the performance.

Matthias Leutzendorff
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