Schoenberg's greatest popular success, with the possible exception of "Verklaerte Nacht," must surely be "Pierrot Lunaire." It has received the number and quality of recordings more common to operatic favorites and the attentions of vocalists not known as contemporary music champions.
And it is still very much contemporary, although the Monday Evening Concert this week at the County Museum of Art celebrated "Pierrot's" 75th anniversary. Lucy Shelton and the Da Capo Chamber Players incisively demonstrated its vigor in the English translation by Andrew Porter.
There are at least two earlier English versions of Schoenberg's expressionist monument, which uses a German translation of French poems. Porter's effort, however, not only preserves the moon-drenched, blood-soaked imagery, but accommodates the rhythmic cadence and linear nuance of Schoenberg's protean Sprech stimme.
Exaggerated theatricality may not be the only approach to "Pierrot," but it certainly follows the line of least resistance. Shelton's performance emphasized vocal contrasts, from the coarsely cackling speed-rap of the "Gallows Song" to the whispered, tubercular crooning of "The Sick Moon." She found an articulate sort of demented dignity within the self-conscious hysteria, increasing the emotional horror.
The flamboyant vocal part so thoroughly occupies the foreground that the subtle wonders of Schoenberg's scoring may go unobserved. To remind us of this musical finesse, the Da Capo Players opened the program with seven of the songs, minus the voice. They revealed fine ensemble values, particularly an exquisite sense of timbral characterization.
The veteran quintet--Andre Emelianoff, cello; Laura Flax, clarinet; Joel Lester, violin; Patricia Spencer, flute; Sarah Rothenberg, piano--also offered Bruce Adolphe's recent "Ballade," a 12-minute, mini-concerto knock-out. Although there is a good deal of motor energy and vigorous passage work in the piece, it maintains a dark, sober nobility. Rothenberg was the sure-fingered protagonist.
The three Russian songs by Nikolai Roslavetz that Shelton and Rothenberg presented were composed just the year after "Pierrot." They, however, are clearly traditional, cosmopolitan Lieder, having more in common with Strauss and Wolf than either Schoenberg or Mussorgsky. Shelton sang with heavy voice and dramatic point, deftly accompanied by Rothenberg.