SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire.1,3 Phantasy for Violin & Piano.2 6 Little Piano Pieces. J. STRAUSS: Emperor’s Waltz (arr. Schoenberg). WEBERN: 4 Pieces for Violin & Piano.2 KREISLER: Little Viennese March.2,3 / Patricia Kopatchinskaja, 1narr/2vln; 3Meesun Hong, vln; Júlia Gállego, fl; Reto Bieri, cl; Marko Milenković, vla; Thomas Kaufmann, cel; Joonas Ahonen, pno / Alpha Classics ALPHA722
This CD has to win some kind of award for most bizarre CD of the year (at least, so far). To begin with, you have someone who looks like an absolute nut (see cover) speaking Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (which is perfect for this piece), but she’s also a violinist who plays on two other works. Normally, Lunaire is filled out on a CD with other works by Schoenberg, and that’s true here too with his Phantasy, on which Kopatchinskaja plays violin, and his 6 Little Piano Pieces. It also makes sense to include a piece by his friend and pupil Anton Webern (4 Pieces for Violin & Piano). But then we also get Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Emperor Waltz because it is an arrangement by Schoenberg (for some strange reason, Schoenberg considered Strauss to be a master composer; but then again, he also collected many of Paul Whiteman’s 1920s recordings to study the orchestrations) and, oddest of all, a piece by Fritz Kreisler, whose music is about as far removed from the Second Viennese School as you can get. And why? Because, believe it or not, Kreisler was not only an early colleague of Schoenberg’s but also a lifelong friend—possibly due to the Johann Strauss connection. (Once, Kreisler heard a Schoneberg piece that he really liked and told Arnold so. The composer’s reaction was to say, “Please, Fritz, don’t tell anyone else you liked it. It would ruin my reputation!”)
The reason why violinist Kopatchinskaja is narrating Pierrot Lunaire is that she hurt her bowing arm at one point and, being unable to play her instrument for a while, begged to be allowed to do Lunaire because she has always thought of herself as being Pierrot. Here is her quote from the booklet:
I am in your head!
How strange it is in here – quite different from everyone else.
Though you keep silent, your confused thoughts are dangerous – your vocal cords as taut and tense as my violin strings.
Your skull is bored right through, light shines inside it, even though it’s nighttime. Looking through your eyes, I can see the moon.
You come from nowhere, you have no idea who you are: a creature of chance, of unhappy circumstance…
On the fringe of everything, you tumble out of time, tugging the whole world through the eye of a needle just to sew your costume. With the seams on the outside, the arms pulled inwards, we are upside down, floating as in a dream, beyond all logic and reason.
Longing – that is your sound. Let’s disappear.
Wow, man. Whatever she’s on, I want some of it!!!
I have two recordings of Lunaire in my collection, the classic Bethany Beardslee-Robert Craft recording with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble (either late 1950s or early ‘60s) and Schoenberg’s own recording of the work from the early 1940s with Erika Steidry-Wagner. The strange thing about the latter is that, even though Columbia allowed Schoenberg multiple takes to get every piece in it the way he wanted it, the finished approved recording has several words spoken on the wrong pitches. And all this time I thought Schoenberg was a stickler for having his music performed correctly.
Kopatchinskaja’s performance of Lunaire is, quite simply, outstanding, every bit as good as the Beardslee version which I’ve always considered the gold standard. In fact, if anything she sounds even weirder than Beardslee, speak-singing some of the pitches in a cracked voice like a Smurf on cocaine and others in a harsh, guttural voice like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. (and, at other moments, sounding like comedian Judy Tenuta). This isn’t someone you’d want to run across while shopping at Wal-Mart. Or, perhaps especially, while standing on line to buy a gun. Then again, Kopatchinskaja could be a Wal-Martian.
Being a fine musician, her rhythm (as well as her pitch) is spot-on, which I’m sure most people would take as a given, but it’s nice to hear such a precise performance in addition to such a nutty one. I tell ya, you can’t beat the old songs for a good time!
And of course, it helps that Kopatchinskaja has first-rate musicians backing her up. In fact, I think it’s a plus to have top-notch chamber musicians on a performance of Pierrot Lunaire rather than just member of an orchestra because each and every one of them can contribute something to the whole, particularly in a work like this where each and every musical strand is supposed to stand out.
I’m not sure if the chamber group is playing this at the proper tempo or not—I’d have to assume they are—but Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Strauss Emperor Waltz is neither very fast nor a waltz tempo—at least, not until about three minutes into it—but a sort of abstract reduction of what Strauss wrote. It’s really almost an entirely different piece. I wonder if the archives contain any rearrangements he did of Paul Whiteman records like this? If so, I’d be interested in hearing them…particularly Shakin’ the Blues Away.
You may think me odd for saying this, but Kopatchinskaja’s performance of the Schoenberg Phantasy for violin & piano is almost as nutty as her Pierrot Lunaire. She snaps the strings, plays with the edge of the bow, and introduces any number of Lunaire-like effects in this music. Without seeing the score I can’t say whether or not the music bears out this sort of interpretation, but it’s surely miles apart from Yehudi Menuhin’s recording of the piece with Glenn Gould or Janneke van der Meer’s recording on Chandos. And yet I liked it. The Webern 4 Pieces for Violin & Piano were new to me, and here again Kopatchinskaja is playing a lot on the edge of the strings and creating whiplash effects in some of the bowed passages. Yet despite all this, she made the music sound interesting and her emotional involvement is unquestioned.
In the Kreisler piece, Kopatchinskaja also plays with an almost manic energy. I had not previously heard this piece either, and to my ears it sounded more like a Gypsy piece than a Viennese one, yet she seems to combine the two, putting some Gypsy energy into the Viennese schmaltz. Then, finally, home ground once again as the Schoenberg piano pieces are played about as you’d expect them.
Definitely a strange album despite the presence of four well-known composers from the early 20th century and mostly known works. But you’ve got to hear how Kopatchinskaja narrates Pierrot Lunaire.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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