Jane Manning’s Pierrot Century

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Zemlinsky, Dallapiccola, Nono, Schoenberg: Jane Manning (soprano); Benjamin Baker (violin); Rohan de Saram (cello); Susan Milan (flute/piccolo); David Campbell (clarinet/bass clarinet); Julian Jacobson (piano); Giora Bernstein (conductor); Alberto Portugheis (piano); Marie Jaermann (soprano); Seljan Nasibili (soprano); Katie Coventry (mezzo); Anna Migallos (alto);  Kings Place, London, 4.3.2014 (GDn)Zemlinsky: Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1891)
Dallapiccola: Ciaccona, Intermezzo and Adagio (1946)
Nono: ¿Donde estás, hermano?
Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire

Jane Manning gave her 100th performance of Pierrot lunaire this evening, an extraordinary achievement by any standards. She has been singing this incredible song cycle for almost 50 years, and her affinity with the work’s unique gestural language is evident in every phrase. She has that crazed cabaret Schtick down to a T; all those spat-out guttural phrases, the un-nerving switches of colour and emotion, the phrases that begin melodically but then degenerate into buzzing nasal consonants.

Sadly, her singing voice isn’t what it what was – how could it be after 50 years? So we missed many of the specifically musical aspects of the solo part. Schoenberg often combines registral extremes with dynamic extremes, and it takes a younger and more supple voice than Manning’s to achieve those kinds of acrobatics. Her Sprechstimme often seems more Sprech than Schoenberg stipulates, and Manning often struggles with the smooth, gradual transitions from speaking to singing and back again.

But otherwise this was a fine performance. Singing is only one of many talents the work demands of its soloist, and in every other respect Manning’s reading was a triumph. Her diction is excellent, and her timing – musical, dramatic and comic – is second to none. The clear, immediate acoustic of Kings Place benefited her performance, ensuring clarity of both line and word, and compensating for some of the loss of tone. The ensemble didn’t play down for her benefit, but the subtly and shading of the instrumental performances gave her plenty of aural space in which to present her lines.

Pierrot was given in the second half of the concert and was definitely the highlight. The title of the event was “Schönberg: Master & Pupil” and the works in the first half were intended to provide context for this early masterpiece. So, works were presented by Zemlinsky – teacher and father-in-law; Nono – son-in-law; Gerhard – pupil; and Dallapiccola – no personal connection but No. 1 fan. Despite his pivotal status in 20th-century music, Schoenberg failed to provide a meaningful or apparent connection between any of these pieces, none of which – apart possibly from the Dallapiccola – came close to the quality of his own, and in every case the performances were found wanting.

The concert opened with Three Pieces for Cello composed by Alexander Zemlinsky in 1891. They’ve only recently been rediscovered, thanks to research by Raphael Wallfisch, so they don’t have much of a performance history. That isn’t reason enough to programme them here though, and they didn’t have much to add. If the intention was to demonstrate the conservatism of the musical world of Schoenberg’s youth, then the case was exaggerated through the use of student works that make Zemlinsky sound even more stylistically restricted than he was. The three short movements are pleasant enough, but these insecure and under-rehearsed performances from Rohan de Saram – who is surely capable of better things – and Alberto Portugheis did them no justice. De Saram then gave us Ciaccona, Intermezzo & Adagio by Luigi Dallapiccola, the one work in this first that earned its keep. Dallapiccola, as was his wont, skilfully combines serial techniques with idiomatic and lyrical writing to impressively dramatic effect. But again, the performance was insecure and unfocussed in both intonation and tone production.

We then heard ¿Donde estás, hermano?, a vocal quartet by Nono, performed here by four undergraduates from the Royal College of Music. This piece seems to rely on approximate pitches, chosen to create transient dissonances and beat effects. The sense of approximation was apparent, but a bit more confidence would have helped. The first half ended with a performance of Gerhard’s Dances from Don Quixote given by Alberto Portugheis, who curated the event, but who (thankfully) was replaced at the piano by Julian Jacobson for the Schoenberg. The Gerhard was another interesting inclusion, with lots of folk material in the melodic lines, seemingly locked in continuous tension with the more Schoenbergian harmonies beneath. As a result, Schoenberg’s influence on this music, while readily apparent, didn’t seem all that constructive. And, again, the performance was no better than adequate – enthusiastic and fluid, but technically insecure, even in the simplest passages.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire is always worth an outing, and even with her advancing years, Jane Manning’s interpretation is very fine. And acknowledging the work’s historical context in concert programming is a laudable aim too. But there has to be a better way to do it than this.

Gavin Dixon