Saturday 12 December 2009

Pierrot Lunaire, Transition_Projects, 11 December 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

Emma Williams (flute/piccolo)
Peter Sparks (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Tom Hankey (violin/viola)
Oliver Coates (violoncello)
Alasdair Beaton (piano)

Claire Booth (soprano)
Netia Jones (director/video design)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

This performance of Pierrot Lunaire was part of a Kings Place series from Transition_projects. The programming has been fascinating, for instance mixing Dowland and Stravinsky, and Bartók with his countrymen, the choreographer Rudolf Laban, and the photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Claire Booth, the soloist in this concert, had also sung in Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres, and would the following evening sing in Scarlatti’s Correa nel seno amato. Unifying these and other concerts was the theme of ‘Darkness and Light’: a spur to imagination, it would seem, rather than an arbitrary constriction, but most welcome if such an interesting range of music proves to be the result. I only wish that I had been able to attend more of the performances.

The present production had first been presented at Wilton’s Music Hall in October 2007. It seems that the praise garnered then was very much deserved. Most importantly, this was a performance that raised questions, rather than answered them. Booth’s excellent performance might well be considered relatively restrained, but hysterical cabaret, though it can work, is not the only way to perform what Stravinsky rightly judged an instrumental masterpiece. Sprechstimme is impossible to define, but it certainly sounded as if it were on offer here; only the occasional note was sung, but pitch was far from incidental. And the words were crystal-clear. Titles, an integral part of Netia Jones’s video design, helped, yet the German was so clear that many would have understood anyway. Moreover, though there was ample opportunity to hear Booth’s words and notes, her part also drew attention to the teeming instrumental invention of Schoenberg’s score, here flawlessly and atmospherically delivered by the players of the Transition_ensemble. Great demands are placed upon the instrumentalists, but technical issues had been thoroughly subordinated to musical demands. Ryan Wigglesworth’s direction was always sure of its direction, imparting a strong sense of unity to what, in lesser hands, can sometimes seem just a succession of poems.

Jones speaks sensibly of her role in this. Pierrot ‘is a highly theatrical work already,’ so her production concentrates upon helping ‘a listener navigate through its treacherous narrative’. One might consider that hardly necessary, but the visual scenes did no harm and heightened that sense of playfulness the director rightly sees as a crucial element to the work. Manipulated, monochrome moving images, of Booth (in ‘real time’ and pre-recorded), of architecture, the moon, the Cross, and so forth, provided a backdrop to the crucial musical events unfolding. I was less sure about the beheading: surely it is a little more than whimsical. But the music, rather than the bizarre verse, is truly the thing – and so it was here.