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Reviews of Deutsche Grammophon 457 630-2 GH

Gramophone 1-99 p42

When the future is past

'The Vocalist of the Future’ was the heading of an urbane paragraph in Musical Times of March 1913, referring to 'a delightful passage concluding a recent song, Herzgewächse, by the irresistible Arnold Schoenberg.’ The final 15 bars (last six lines of the poem) were quoted, showing that the vocalist of the future was evidently 'expected to have a compass of nearly three octaves. The pppp F in alt is a touch of inspiration.’ Years ago a soprano called Rita Tritter (nothing of her now on the Gramophone Database) turned the laugh backwards, singing the futuristic phrases with accuracy, good tone and apparent ease, all to quite beautiful effect. Others have recorded the piece since, and now Christine Schäfer shows that the future is not yet past. With a voice which we do not usually think of as being of the stratospheric kind, she nevertheless advances by way of the C, D flat and E flat placed as so many stepping-stones to the F. This (set to an 'ee’ of all the possible vowels) is held long and steady, even if not achieving quite the fourth degree of piano. but I would say the effect is not what Schoenberg ideally wanted. The words refer to a mystical prayer which is to rise to the crystal blue: the pppp shows he imagines it as a fluted tone in the Kopfstimme, so soft as to seem lost in the heavens. Instead, we see-hear what we should not: the face of a singer at the extremity of her range and ignoring the murderous vowel-requirement to save her life. The laugh, like the echo, booms back from one wall to the other, from the ironical MT ('the idea is obviously in its infancy’) to the faithful musician-singer; but it does not sop there.

On this same disc, Schäfer also performs Pierrot lunaire, pitching accurately when a sung tone is required and otherwise producing a finely modulated speech-voice. The effect in this recording, with the Ensemble InterContemporain under Boulez, is there exactly right: that of combining within one body a delicate beauty and a savage violation. It is strange how the mind responds while listening: I find myself attracted by the clarity and special refinement of verbal image and musical texture, and yet almost comically mindful of the woman who commissioned it and gave the first performance, enjoying the shock-effect of avant-garde stylization, while also indulging show-off effects which would have been forbidden even to the old-style 'ham’ actor of the day. And that--the voice of grandiloquent 'ham’--reappears on the disc in the Ode to Napoleon. Declaimed here, no doubt faithfully, by David Pittman-Jennings, conceivable that he can really have believed that this is how Byron should 'go’? The poem is intelligently argued and wittily phrased. Schoenberg reduces it to high-class tub-thumping.

John Steane

© 1999 Gramophone. Used without permission.