Preludes Book 2 (Debussy)
Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky)
Waikanae Music Society subscription recital
Waikanae Memorial Hall
Sunday 7 April, 2.30pm
The third in the Waikanae Music Society’s 2013 series of nine concerts presented an international pianist in one of what was apparently very few New Zealand recitals.
The audience was of around average size for Waikanae, perhaps 350.
Book 2 of Debussy’s preludes contains music that is less familiar than Book I. The reasons are plain enough: fewer pieces of distinctive character, more ‘impressionist’ or scene-painting pieces whose strengths emerge, for all but those with a psychological affinity with the composer, only after several hearings, or by studying them at the keyboard (not an approach available to those with less than Grade 8 skills at the very least). And then, their magic is likely to take root, seriously; and a performance like this is the kind that could accelerate the process of enchantment.
The pieces call for extraordinary refinement and subtlety, qualities that Marshev is greatly endowed with. In the first piece, Brouillards, a wash of arpeggios ending with a sequence of widely spaced octaves, dynamic effects seems to emerge from the far left of pianissimo. Dead Leaves are captured at considerable length in dense chords, coloured blues-like with 6ths, while a habanera rhythm sustains the Spanish/Moorish quality of the third piece – a sensitive portrayal of the sounds of a country Debussy never really visited.
One finds oneself smiling indulgently at some of the fanciful titles and the music they are put with. Les fées sont d’esquises danseurs is a case where the title rather outstrips the piano’s capacities to suggest the indefinable and unsubstantial, no matter how delicate and exquisite the touch at the keyboard; and a more perfect rendering than this could hardly be imagined.
One of the few comic touches was Général Lavine which stands out more for its eccentricity and unexpected effects than much lasting musical interest – for me at least. The same goes for Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. of which I can actually recall more outlandish and grotesque performances. A comparable exercise at satire is La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, but slightly removed from comprehension through its need for the event that inspired it to be explained; for all that, it remains one of the more colourful and entertaining of these preludes. It ranks in character with the last prelude, Feux d’artifices (fireworks) that in many ways provides a cyclopedia of the varied technical and colourful devices that enrich the whole collection.
An external diversion was not well timed to accompany Canope, a portrait of an Egyptian burial urn, an image that overlapped awkwardly with the skittering of seagulls on the roof of the hall.
The gulls departed soon enough, though they might have usefully provided complementary effects for episodes of Pictures at an Exhibition – The Ballet of the Unborn Chicks or The Little Hut on Chicken Legs.
The work as a whole is an interesting reminder of the richness and extent of western European music, and culture in general, that took root in Russia through the 19th century, evidence that more recent regimes seems to be determined to depreciate. Though familiar piano music of the 19th century is limited to Tchaikovsky, there were others, like Balakirev (Islamey for example), Liapunov, Arensky, Tcherepnin, as well as Mussorgsky, before the obvious later figures like Rachmaninov, Medtner, Scriabin and Prokofiev.
Nevertheless, Pictures at an Exhibition does rather emerge from nowhere, in Russian terms, and its genius is attested to by the several successful orchestrations by later composers, though it’s the original piano version that excites me most.
The combination of a pianist with such refinement of touch, command of dynamic subtleties, with the Fazioli piano made this a performance to remember. The Promenade began promisingly, commanding attention without punishing the piano, it led to a virtuosic picture of weird creatures, Gnomes, with erratic rhythms, crabbed motifs, irregular patterns, contrasting with the gentle, mournful depiction of a troubador’s song at an Old Castle.
The astonishing variety of images that Mussorgsky creates, some frenzied and unsettling, some slow and steady like Bydlo or the Catacombs, others painting colourful people like children playing in the Tuilerie gardens or the two Jews; all called for virtuosity and precise articulation; nothing was tasteless or excessive.
The Finale really comprises The Little Hut on Chicken Legs which merges into the Great Gate at Kiev, rehearsing aspects of what went before and building to a climax in which nothing could be seen as conventional peroration or a ritual ending.
Here are there, minor slips happened, and one was near the end, but the challenges of this unusual piece with its grand chordal acceleration to the end, have tripped up others.
There was one encore: Alexandr Siloti ‘s transcription, in B minor, of Bach’s Prelude in E minor from Book II of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.
It was a privilege to hear this exquisite yet highly colourful and dramatic performance.