Marsh Pierrot Lunaire

Going further than Schoenberg ever did – and generally succeeding

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Marsh Pierrot Lunaire

  • Pierrot Lunaire

In 1992 Alexander Goehr completed his cantata The Death of Moses, inspired by Schoenberg’s great opera Moses und Aron. Now here is another work which one can’t imagine existing had it not been for a work of Schoenberg’s: Pierrot lunaire. No less than Goehr’s cantata, it is both homage and critique – a consequence rather than an imitation.

Roger Marsh sets all Giraud’s 50 poems: Schoenberg 21. Marsh combines the original French with English translations: Schoenberg used German translations only. Schoenberg used a single vocalist and five instrumentalists: Marsh has four vocal ensembles as well as a solo mezzo and a narrator, with occasional though telling use of instruments. Schoenberg echoes the 19th-century song-cycle: Marsh creates associations with different choral forms – motet, madrigal, chorale, chant. Once the ear adjusts to the layering of speech and song, the work is supremely approachable, with expressive, often simple harmonies offset by catchy rhythms, touching on popular styles in ways which echo Messiaen and Berio. Indeed, the theatrical extravagance of the two movements featuring Linda Hirst seems designed as homage to the great Cathy Berberian.

There is a powerful climax near the end of Part 1, where the spirit of “cruel Eucharist” is at its clearest, aided by organ and bells. Listening without a break, you might feel that the music retreats once too often to a default style of sustained, close-position harmony. But so skilful is the performance, and so atmospheric the recording, that any reservations soon dissolve. Even discrepancies between the spoken text and the printed translation, the result of the composer’s changes, cease to distract after the first hearing.

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