Rockport Chamber Music Festival celebrated two giants of 20th-century repertoire, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Igor’s Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in its “Centennials” concert on Saturday, June 9th in the Shalin Liu Performance Center.
Despite its exalted position within the history of 20th-century music, Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire is not an easy piece to love, especially considering the wide range of interpretations employed in performance. But with soprano Mary Mackenzie as a guide, these 21 often densely textured and mercurial songs were a dramatic yet intimate revelation. I admit that I was never a fan of this song cycle, yet after this enthralling performance, I am convinced of its beauty.
Mackenzie’s sprechtstimme leaned more toward singing than speaking, and her timbre ranged from a low, throaty speech to a lyrically strident lament. Most striking was the breathy tone she used to render beautifully the nocturnal mystery of songs such as Eine blasse Wäscherin, and Der kranke Mond, where Mackenzie’s voice was wonderfully paired with flutist Anne Bobo’s luscious timbre. Mackenzie’s unleashing of an operatic drama for the bloody lyrics of Die Kreuze and her sing-song delivery for the sly text of Der Mondfleck were also particularly engaging.
While each of her vocal colorings was captivating on its own, Mackenzie really impressed in songs like Gebet an Pierrot, Rote Messe, and Parodie, in which she shifted through many different shadings to dramatize their rich imagery.
The ensemble accompanying Mackenzie comprised Bobo, flute; Gary Gorczyca, clarinets; Sharan Leventhal, violin and viola; Joshua Gordon, cello; and Randall Hodgkinson, piano. Even while navigating unexpected turns of melody and harmony, this ensemble employed its warmest tones and kept the music flowing.
Pianist Randall Hodgkinson had an especially delightful light touch and was able to give shape to even the most pointillistic lines. At times perhaps, the ensemble was too smooth, and could have let loose to match the singer’s expression, particularly in more volatile songs such as Parodie and the morbid Galgenlied and Enhauptung.
The ensemble began Pierrot Lunaire with a light and dynamic expressiveness that gradually launched into the kind of heightened drama emblematic of this song cycle. It ended with a playful and relaxed approach to the nostalgia of the last four songs. Mackenzie concluded with her most charming, breathy vocals in O Alter Duft, finishing on a whisper as perfectly rich and seductive as the perfume described in the text.
Also composed in 1912, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is something of a musical poster boy for modernism, from its iconic primal rhythms to its novel use of the orchestra’s instruments, both alone and in combination. While Stravinsky himself successfully used piano arrangements to demonstrate his orchestral music to friends and colleagues like Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, this four hands performance was uneven and unconvincing.
Duo-pianists Randall Hodgkinson and Leslie Amper were not off to a good start with their rushed rendering of the opening bassoon melody. Perhaps bassoonists, so rarely given the spotlight, are inclined to over-milk their moment, but this was too far in the other direction. When the duo finally eased off their initial tempo, they went a little too far in the other direction and left the “Dances of the Young Girls” feeling sluggish. Luckily, by the “Spring Rounds,” Hodgkinson and Amper had hit their stride, rendering the melody with sparkling clarity and giving the rhythmic underpinnings just enough punch. The balance between foreground and background layers as they moved into the darker portion of this movement was perfect. In these moments, it was amazing to watch the dance of the pianists’ hands on the keys.
Those opening passages set the pattern for the rest of the performance. Although there were wonderful moments when the tempo and balance gave the piece just the right snap and sparkle, there were just as many passages that succumbed to awkward tempos and muddiness.
I went in to the hall expecting to experience the Rite of Spring as a reward for making it through Pierrot Lunaire; however, due to the outstanding interpretation of the latter ensemble, Schoenberg became the star of the evening, leaving Stravinsky as an afterthought.
Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.