Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 melodrama Pierrot lunaire is a work of many paradoxes. The main character, Pierrot, is a man usually sung by a woman; the instrumentalists serve both as soloists and as an accompanying orchestra; it is performed using a style of singing more akin to stylised speech than actual singing; and it straddles the divide between high art and cabaret. Friday’s performance, however, was firmly placed in the cabaret end.

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature
Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature

This Pierrot lunaire was performed in the Munch Museum, a museum dedicated to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of his birth. Pierrot was preceded by a talk on Munch and Schoenberg held by Norwegian author Ketil Bjørnstad. In it, he remarked on several striking similarities, but perhaps the most interesting was that both Munch and Schoenberg worked inside rigid formal boundaries handed down from the past; Munch’s paintings were always figurative, never abstract, and Schoenberg, even in Pierrot, used numerous old musical forms, like fugue, canon and passacaglia.

Mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad’s performance of Pierrot was vividly characterised, kicking the whole thing off with an almost comically drunken Mondestrunken. She brought out the theatrical side of the piece, and she seemed intent on showcasing the cabaret-like and almost burlesque side of Pierrot. The performance, especially the second half, was searingly intense, a feat made all the more impressive by Augestad seldom looking up from her score, instead concentrating on bringing out as much detail as possible. Her attention to both text and diction was remarkable. Equally impressive was her ability to change moods instantly, from drunken ramblings to hysterical cackling, to deep existential despair. Before several of the movements, Augestad read Norwegian translations of the poems, or at least excerpts of them, highlighting key moments in the piece.

The chamber ensemble, made up of musicians from the Oslo Philharmonic, was led by Jukka-Pekka Saraste in his second performance with Oslo Philharmonic players after stepping down as chief conductor of the orchestra. He emphasised transparency and clarity, highlighting the counterpoint between the parts, but also being keenly aware of when the instruments take on roles as soloists. Saraste did for the most part follow Augestad regarding the mood of the piece, although he himself seemed to favour the more traditional expressionist and angst-filled approach, which sometimes led to a somewhat disjointed feel. However, a certain disjointedness isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Pierrot. There also seemed to have been thought put into the role of the singer: she was at times deliberately part of the instrumental texture, and sometimes she stood out as a soloist. The ensemble sounded somewhat thin at times, at least partly due to the less than great acoustics of the Munch Museum’s auditorium.

Pierrot lunaire is a strange piece. With its evocative and at times disturbing imagery, it is at times deadly serious and at times trying frustratedly to escape that seriousness, only to have it replaced by grotesque, dreamlike images. Friday’s performance was disturbing, yet maintained a sardonic sense of light-heartedness. Perhaps the very thing that made it so disturbing in the first place.

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