Keeping the piano recital alive – Stephen De Pledge

Stephen de Pledge – Piano Recital at the Town Hall

Music by Beethoven, Debussy, Mayerl, Brahms,
Psathas, McLeod, Harris, Prokofiev

Wellington Town Hall, 8th September 2009

It had to happen, sooner or later – a piano recital at a major Wellington venue, the Town Hall, no less (the event graduating from the Ilott Theatre presumably by dint of weight of public interest, even though the Town Hall galleries were closed to the public). The artist was Stephen De Pledge, one of New Zealand’s finest pianists, presently on a nation-wide Chamber Music New Zealand tour. There’s an opinion afoot that piano recitals don’t attract as much public interest as do other musical events, a disturbingly blinkered sentiment which, if given enough currency, could do a lot of harm in the wrong quarters. Imagine a situation where concertgoers were thus deprived of regular opportunities to hear “live” a sizeable body of the Western world’s greatest and most significant music!

Some of this music was presented with admirable aplomb and considerable sensitivity at Stephen De Pledge’s Town Hall recital on Tuesday evening. The very cosmopolitan programme spanned a number of centuries and covered a variety of styles, attitudes and emotions – if Stephen De Pledge seemed more at home with some of the pieces than with others, his presentations were always expertly crafted and constantly thought-provoking.

I thought his Beethoven classically restrained and elegantly gradated, perhaps a bit too mellifluously delivered to convey the “Pathetique” Sonata’s full revolutionary force – his sinuous keyboard sheen gave the fiery allegros in the outer movements more of a Mendelssohnian feel, though in the first movement he scored points with his “back to the very beginning” repeat (which I had never heard done before), and the charged quality with which he invested the dramatic pauses and silences that abound in the music. His sensitivity brought an almost coy reticence to the slow movement’s great theme, less a case of “strong men wiping away silent tears” than an inwardly-expressed delight. The minor-key middle section was lightly etched, again sensitive and intimate almost to a fault, never singing full-throatedly, but content to delineate the delights of order and serenity. Again, the finale, though it had moments of almost Lisztian brilliance such as just before the main theme’s recapitulation, was notable here for its order and restraint, reminding us that the composer, for all his revolutionary impulses, still lived in an aristocratic age.

Before continuing with the Debussy Stephen De Pledge spoke to the audience, as he continued to do throughout the recital, in this case offering some thoughts regarding the contrasts between Beethoven and the music he was about to play.  He had only to touch the first few notes of Reflects dans l’eau from Debussy’s Book One of Images to convey to us his absolute identification with the composer’s sound-world – all the limpid textures and colours of the music were captured in an enchanting sound-web of suggestion. The Hommage à Rameau which followed was a beautifully wrought fusion of antiquity and timelessness, while the final Mouvement tripped the light fantastic with bell-like cascades of light at once singing and shimmering, the music’s extraordinary “layered “quality realised to the full for our delight. The two Billy Mayerl pieces which followed brought to our attention the work of a classically-trained composer and performer who sought fame playing the popular “syncopated” music of the age, but whose music is informed with all kinds of “serious” influences. Stephen De Pledge charmed and lulled us with the graceful melodic elasticity of Shallow Waters, before whirling us along a madcap Railroad Rhythm faster than any British Rail passenger would have expected to go, complete with raucous whistles and clattering point-changes, the disappearing juggernaut saluting the exhilarated traveller with a farewell whistle at the end.

The second half was launched with Brahms’ two Op.79 Rhapsodies, played at times with almost elfin textures, more sinuous and lean than is often the case with performances of this composer’s music. If I occasionally wanted more girth and melodic glint in the big moments, I appreciated the playing’s remarkable poise and control, with many new things brought out in the accompanying figurations. The pianist then “placed” the three Landscape Preludes (taken from a set commissioned by De Pledge from a number of New Zealand composers) as a central oasis of calm between the storms and stresses of the Brahms and Prokofiev items. I loved John Psathas’ Lisztian explorations of harmony and texture in the first Prelude “Sleeper”, and felt that De Pledge similarly brought out both the detail and drama of Jenny McLeod’s West Coast evocation, and the essential solitariness of Ross Harris’s A landscape with too few lovers, a meditation on worlds which have only remembrances.

Concluding the recital as scheduled was Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, one of the “War Trilogy” works, and sounding suitably confrontational in Stephen De Pledge’s hands. His treatment of the first movement I thought more anxiety-ridden than savage, bringing out the music’s intermittent dark lyricism in between the fiercer episodes, and articulating the contrasts with great command of detail. The slow movement’s sombre beauty nicely flowered, the pianist bringing out the orchestral quality of the writing in the impassioned middle section, before drawing the remains together for reassuring words of comfort at the conclusion. The finale took no prisoners, its three-note motto hammering the toccata-like argument home, De Pledge moving from elfin lightness through sinuous strength and steely brutality towards a breathlessly cataclysmic climax. Despite his exertions the pianist then gave us a palate-cleansing encore, appropriately another piece of Debussy, The Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner, by turns animated and wistful, and as with the Book One Images, magically recreated.

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