“I sense that I am definitely moving towards a new way of expression,’’ wrote Arnold Schoenberg in 1912. He had just begun composing “Pierrot Lunaire,’’ a set of 21 melodramas on poems by the Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. Remarkably for a composer of such fertile imagination, Schoenberg felt himself struggling to stay relevant at a time when his students were, as he put it, “nipping at his heels.’’
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried, as “Pierrot Lunaire’’ would become one of his most influential works. Its atonal composing style, its use of “Sprechstimme’’ (“speech-song’’) vocalization, its dazzling chamber scoring, its expressionistic atmosphere - all were landmark innovations, not only in the composer’s career but in modern culture. Like few other works, “Pierrot’’ can stand for an entire epoch in music history.
That it has retained its vitality was clear from a performance on Thursday night at the Gardner Museum in its new Calderwood Hall to mark the piece’s centenary. The stage was set with Paula Robison, handling the vocal duties, surrounded by the five instrumentalists, as if she were being caged by the imaginary demons the songs depict.
The texts of “Pierrot’’ - full of bloody, phantasmagorical visions - demand a dramatic approach. But it’s hard to imagine them being performed with more uninhibited theatricality than Robison gave them. Speech prevailed over song, and her voice took on a Sybil-like array of characters: conspiratorial whispers, animalistic shrieks, inebriated wonder, childlike pleas all found their way in. At times her performance was almost over the top, but its twisted, dramatic force was riveting.
The instrumental ensemble - pianist Steven Beck, flutist Sooyun Kim, clarinetist Carol McGonnell, violinist and violist David Fulmer, and cellist Michael Kannen - were superb in a less overt way. They played the score seamlessly, with the kind of confidence and depth of understanding that belied its difficulties. Their interaction with Robison was delicious: The image of Kim playing to a haunted Pierrot during “Der kranke Mond’’ (“The sick moon’’) was indelible.
To open the concert, Kannen, McGonnell, and Beck teamed up for miniatures by Schoenberg’s best-known students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Kannen and Beck played five cello pieces by Webern - two from 1899, showing a young Viennese Romantic, and three from 1914, in his epigrammatic, 12-tone style. The two sets are separated by 15 years and an entire artistic revolution. McGonnell and Beck gave a beautiful reading of Berg’s smoldering Four Pieces for clarinet and piano - a novel’s worth of plot compressed into four postcards.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.