Gig review: Hebrides Ensemble, Edinburgh

The Hebrides Ensemble’s performance of Schoenberg’s atonal masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire suitably launched Uncensored Life, a celebration of John Calder, one of the UK’s most distinguished and radical publishers and champion of the avant-garde.
Hebrides EnsembleHebrides Ensemble
Hebrides Ensemble

Hebrides Ensemble - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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For this melodrama, Schoenberg chose to set 21 of Albert Giraud’s poems about Pierrot, a tragicomic pantomime figure from the seventeenth century Commedia Dell’Arte. Although the composer departs from conventional tonal centres, somewhat surprisingly he does use traditional structures and forms for the instrumental music played by a quintet: violin/viola (Zoe Beyers), cello (William Conway), piano (Philip Moore), flute (Fiona Fulton) and clarinet (Yann Ghiro).

This tightly knit ensemble superbly conjured the tense and unsettling backdrop that fortifies this disturbing tale with a mixture of jazz-infused piano riffs and flurries of contrasting instrumental pairings, for instance piccolo with bass clarinet.

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Further accentuating this edgy dissonance is Schoenberg’s extraordinary use of “sprechgesang” – a spoken/sung technique – for the voice of moonstruck Pierrot. This style of “singing” creates both an intimacy in terms of the storytelling and a feeling of alienation, realised effectively by Australian soprano Allison Bell, stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Anna Huntley. Striking a pose similar to that of a puppet, Bell made for a compelling Pierrot, although more depth and variety in the lower registers of her voice would have emphasised the androgynous nature of the role.

Written in 1912, Schoenberg’s seminal work exploring the dark side of the human condition still packs a powerful musical and emotional punch.

Seen on 18.04.14