Pierrot Lunaire

RUTH MARINER breaks the silence on one of Cambridge’s best-kept classical secrets: the CUMS free Lunchtime Concert Season.

classical music cums downie deat kate whitley lunchtime concerts Modernist pierrot lunaire raphaela papadakis review sameeta gahir schoenberg tim hawken tom wraith

1.10pm, Tuesday 17th January, West Road Concert Hall, Free (Donations to CUMS)


Curiously, the the CUMS weekly recitals appear to have been something of a well-kept secret amongst a few of the city’s students. Rather selfish of them, I say. Not only do these concerts present only the cream of Cambridge’s classical crop, but payment to see your fellow students is entirely by donation; meaning that if you’re really poor or really stingy, you can attend the entire terms worth for free! Judging by the quality of today’s performance, with Raphaela Papadakis and an accompanying CUMS ensemble, you are in for a truly spectacular season.

Entering into West Road first this term was the cornerstone of the modernist’s Bible: Schoenberg’s masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire. Composed as a melodrama from the cycle of poems by Albert Giraud, Pierrot was one of the three pre-war works which turned the classical world upside-down.

The piece is pretty upside-down in itself: it is a ‘serious’ cabaret, and Pierrot is a male role played by a woman; simultaneously the hero and the fool. The themes of the work encapsulate everything the twentieth century was big on: a macabre mix of death, insanity, absurdity, irony and sex. Musically, the work was innovative in its tonality, choice of ensemble, and the use of sprechstimme – a type of sung speech that allows the performer to abandon their pitches immediately after landing on them, creating an exaggerated caricature of speech that holds more expressive potential.

To this end, Raphaela Papadakis made an astounding protagonist. She brought every insane facet and schizophrenic voice of the text to life with emotional poignancy and masterful control. Although charming as she skipped through Nostalgia’s passages with a playful naiveté and gleeful child-like rhyme, she transformed again and again throughout the piece: turning round to spit words in violent fits of rage, or become suddenly introvert; brooding over warnings of distant dangers.

Instrumentally, each passage was profoundly well tailored under Downie Dear’s sensitive control. The flute (Sameeta Gahir) punctuated the texture like the voice, imitating the seductive mixture of smooth yet spasmodic phrasing. Tom Wraith’s cello passages during the Serenade were aggressively virtuosic, and the piano (Kate Whitley) and violin (Tim Hawken) were intermittently captivating, occasionally enjoying melodies at the front of the texture.

The work demands an interesting tension between the players, requiring them to work together at certain times, and to become soloists in their own right at others. At certain points I felt the ensemble was a bit too cautious and and could have mimicked more of the singer’s theatricality to make the climaxes pack an extra punch. Nevertheless, the performance portrayed a vibrant and varied set of unnerving moods, holding the audience in rapt attention from beginning to end.