The year 2012 marks the 100th birthday of Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire”, more commonly known as Pierrot lunaire. To celebrate this, Stroma New Music Ensemble engaged one of New Zealand’s foremost young singers for Pierrot, and prefaced it with two works by Schoenberg’s pupils. The first of these was Hanns Eisler’s 14 Arten den Regen du beschreiben (“Fourteen Ways of Depicting Rain”), a set of variations dedicated to Schoenberg and originally composed to accompany an already existing silent film, Joris Ivens’ Rain. We had the pleasure of seeing a reconstructed version of this film, consisting of a tableau of scenes of Amsterdam in the rain. Musically, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging work, mostly relatively energetic, based on a tone series derived from the letters in Schoenberg’s name.

This was followed by Webern’s String Trio, Op. 20, in an alternately delicate and abrasive rendition. It was wonderful to be able to see as well as hear the performers in this work – one could see Webern’s tiny melodic “shards” being generated and forming into intricate contrapuntal ideas. Stroma brought out the lyricism in the score, particularly in the first movement. In contrast to this, they certainly didn’t shy away from the more jagged moments, showing an admirable willingness to sacrifice tonal beauty. A riveting performance.

While not the first use of Sprechstimme vocal techniques (Humperdinck’s Königskinder and the part of the Speaker in Schoenberg’s own Gurrelieder precede it in this regard), Pierrot lunaire was the first work in which they were used throughout. Created during Schoenberg’s flirtation with atonality, it is one of his early masterpieces and it was a pleasure to hear it live for the first time, especially in such a stunning performance as the one offered by Stroma. Pierrot lunaire is scored for the unusual combination of flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and piano – though this combination (known as the “Pierrot ensemble”) has become popular with some later composers. Stroma’s delivery of the instrumental parts was nigh-on flawless; they are obviously extremely demanding (even virtuosic in parts), but the instrumentalists were thoroughly unfazed, Andrew Thomson showing equal command of both violin and viola. Hamish McKeich found wonderful expressive variety in Schoenberg’s music, from macabre dance rhythms to some moments that were almost shockingly sensual.

Our soloist was young New Zealand soprano Madeleine Pierard. She is a real chameleon of a singer; earlier this year I heard her as a magnificent Fiordiligi and in the greatest performance of Berg’s Seven Early Songs I have ever experienced. Next year she will sing in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and in The Rake’s Progress with the Auckland Philharmonia – talk about a varied repertoire! In this Pierrot, she was absolutely superlative in her command of Schoenberg’s neurotic Sprechstimme; perhaps more on the “sung” than “spoken” side than some recordings I have heard. Hysteria was kept to a minimum so that whenever there was a sudden frenzy it made all the more impact. She was very mindful of pitch, and diction was extremely clear. Face painted white in commedia dell’arte style, Pierard made a good effort at engaging with the audience, even though she understandably also paid a lot of attention to the score before her.

What was most striking about this performance was the vivid emotional journey on which the audience was taken. The first few movements were almost playful until the darkness set in from “Madonna”. In “Der kranke Mond”, delivered in a voice drained of emotion, one felt the death of Pierrot’s last vestiges of sanity alongside that of his infatuation with the moon. The violence of Part 2 was strongly brought out, particularly in the creepy “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”). Part 3 began with the most wistful sense of homesickness contrasted with a disturbingly haunted “Der Mondfleck”. Glimpses of light and humour flickered throughout the performance, but we were always returned to an almost agonizing oppression. There was clearly no hope of redemption for this Pierrot – is there anything left but death? Rarely have I felt so disquieted and disturbed after a concert; high praise is well deserved for this astounding performance of a work that has clearly lost none of its ability to shock even 100 years after its birth.