Contemporary Rites – Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer

Xenia Pestova, piano; Pascal Meyer, piano
STRAVINSKY: “The Rite of Spring”;
DUGAL MCKINNON: “Diktat, Ditty Half-Life”;
CHRIS WATSON: “Coffee Table Book”.


NZ School of Music Adam Concert Room, 17 July 2009

**VUW Hunter Council Chamber, 19 July 2009

Is ballet music programme music when performed without the ballet? If it is, then is it “about” the dance action onstage, or is it, instead, more “about” the story and images that inspired the ballet’s  scenario in the first place? If so, then Stravinsky (famous for the dictum that music expresses only itself) may, paradoxically, have written one of the greatest tone poems of the twentieth century.

These were some of the thoughts going through my mind as I listened to duo pianists Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer playing “The Rite of Spring”. Their two-piano version provided more resonance and weight than the composer’s own arrangement for one-piano-four-hands, edging just a little closer to the power of the orchestra. At times Pestova and Meyer evoked familiar instrumental timbres (the opening bassoon, the dialogues of muted trumpets): at others they created something fresh and new – from washes of piano arpeggios, to sinister stalking rhythms.

Unexpectedly, rhythm also emerged as a crucial element in Stockhausen’s “Mantra”. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised: after all, “Piano Piece IX” began with a premonitory dose of pre-minimalist minimalism. However, in the 1956/61 piece, the regularly repeated chords were readily deconstructed into irregular flourishes at the extremes of the keyboard. In the 1969/70 “Mantra”, by contrast, a measured pulse recurred many times during the work – at one point with acerbic wit, as when Pestova’s peremptorily iterated high pitch “corrected” a “wrong” note written for Meyer’s part.

Pestova and Meyer’s intimate engagement with the piece enabled them to highlight episodes of lush romanticism and snatches of melody. Despite these, and the extended periods of metre, the 70-minute “Mantra” proved an epic marathon demanding concentration, commitment and stamina – and that was just for the listeners. The duo pianists themselves needed all these, plus exquisite coordination – especially in such instances as when Pestova’s microsecond woodblock had to coincide with Meyer’s attack. For the performers not only had the pianos, but also an array of small percussion instruments (woodblocks, tuned crotales), as well as dials to initiate ring-modulation (an electronic effect equivalent to Cage’s prepared piano, bringing the tone colour closer to that of the crotales).

Expertly controlled by sound projectionist Philip Brownlee, the ring modulation also offered an escape from the prison of twelve-equal temperament, notably in the form of arresting (all the more so for being sparingly deployed) sliding portamenti on piano sustains. With “Mantra”, Stockhausen had returned to more rigorously formulated composition after a period of experimentation with improvisation and chance: had he followed the precedent set by Markevitch, Ives and Wyschnegradsky and tuned one of the pianos a quarter-tone apart, he would have had even more scope for his procedure of expanding and contracting his intervallic material (a process pioneered in the 1920s by Mexican microtonalist Julian Carrillo).

After having been percussionists and vocalizing actors, Pestova and Meyer further heightened the excitement towards the end with a tour-de-force of rushing fugato passages.

Echoes of Stockhausen’s uncompromising modernism were present in Chris Watson’s “Coffee Table Book” in the earlier recital. Intended as the musical analogue of a pictorial volume (as opposed to the structured narrative of literary fiction), the piece was duly episodic, but retained Watson’s characteristic control of the flow of tension.

Xenia Pestova, a graduate of the Victoria University School of Music and pupil of Judith Clark, has always shown a commitment to contemporary (and New Zealand) music. With Luxembourg pianist Pascal Meyer, this seems set to continue with compositions for two pianos. Dugal McKinnon’s “Diktat, Ditty Half-Life”, with its neatly encapsulating concluding gesture, was the first of a series of miniatures for the duo. I look forward to hearing more.

8 thoughts on “Contemporary Rites – Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer

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