Madeleine Pierard brings life to Schoenberg's twilight world.
A rare visit from Wellington contemporary music ensemble Stroma was especially welcome when the Sunday-night concert featured soprano Madeleine Pierard as the moonstruck chanteuse of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.
It was an intriguing programme and began with tributes to two of Schoenberg's pupils. Hanns Eisler is best known for the ardently left-wing songs he wrote with Brecht, but his 1942 Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain is purely instrumental.
On Sunday, it was presented as an accompaniment to the film that inspired it, Joris Ivens' 1929 Rain.
Conductor Hamish McKeich was determined to underline the craft and expressiveness of Eisler's writing. The five wind and string players gave a strong, confident reading, anchored by Sarah Watkins' piano, with its captivating catalogue of watery motifs.
McKeich also conducted Megan Molina, Andrew Thomson and Robert Ibell in Webern's 1927 String Trio.
With a conductor, the piece lost some of the intimacy and organic cohesion that happens when the three musicians are dealing directly with one another.
It was difficult to believe that Madeleine Pierard, totally transformed in clown make-up and white dress, was recently a vivacious Fiordiligi in a production of Cosi fan Tutte.
Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire lays out a mysterious twilight world, halfway between speech and song, and Pierard inhabited it with full citizen rights.
She relished the cabaret of nightmares and paranoia that Albert Giraud's poems spill out, using her mezzo past to darken images of sinister moths, decapitations and enough blood to keep a Mario Bava film awash.
Yet, remembering that the composer intended the work to have a light, ironical satirical tone, Pierard also realised this in songs like the poignant portrait of a washerwoman and the ensuing Valse de Chopin.
It was in such pieces that the instrumentalists, never less than excellent, went even beyond that, their crystalline textures suggesting that this is a work informed as much by the spirit of Impressionism as Expressionism.