Xenia Pestova – an interpreter for all ages, at St.Andrew’s, Wellington

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
THE GREY GHOST – Xenia Pestova (piano)

DEBUSSY – La cathedral engloutie (from Preludes 1910)
ED BENNETT (b. 1975) – Gothic (2008)
SCARLATTI – Keyboard Sonatas in D Major (K.9) and D Minor (K.10)
PATRICIA ALESSANDRINI – Etude d’apres Scarlatti (2002)
DARIA DOBROCHNA KWIATKOWSKA (b.1969) – After Brin (2000)
BERIO – 6 Encores: Brin (1990) / Feuerklavier (1989) / Wasserklavier (1965)
JS BACH – Sechs klein Praeludien BWV 939: No.6 in C Minor
GLENDA KEAM (b.1960) – Mind Springs(2016-17)
ANNEAR LOCKWOOD (b.1939) – RCSC (2001)
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier BWV 933
No.5 in E Major / No.6 in E Minor
HEATHER HINDMAN – Two and a Half Miniatures 1 (2005)
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien BWV 939: No.4 in A Minor / No.6 in C Major
ARLENE SIERRA (b.1970) – Birds and Insects (2003-15) Painted Bunting – Cicada Sketch – Titmouse
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier BWV 933 No.4 in D Major
CLARA WIECK SCHUMANN – THree Preludes and Fugues, Op.16: No.3 in D Minor
MIRIAMA YOUNG (b. 1975) – The Grey Ghost (2017)

Xenia Pestova (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 30th July 2017

Xenia Pestova’s programme in itself commanded a good deal of interest, with its many and varied juxtapositionings of old and new adding adventurous touches to the concert’s overall excitement along with the anticipation of many individual delights. I’d not had any previous encounter with the pianist’s playing, but read with interest her “artist’s bio” resume as per programme, which outlined a goodly number of notable artistic achievements, enough to whet the appetite for what might come of the afternoon of music-making about to be set before us.

The pianist readily and eloquently talked with us throughout the concert, introducing each of the items and giving it a context which I thought enhanced the effect of her performances – though she spoke freely, everything seemed to the point, and in fact enhanced the helpfulness of the programme’s written notes without excess point-making. No doubt that some people would have preferred that she simply played the programme without spoken introductions – I found her direct and brightly-focused manner refreshing and, in instances where I wasn’t familiar with the composer or the music, generally helpful.

In her own programme-note, Pestova spoke of the interconnectiveness of existence, and how this is expressed in music, citing her presentation of works by eight contemporary composers which offer “personal commentaries on the past”, and how their music can be heard “sharing with us their unique visions of the music yet to come.” Certainly, in this context her performances for me almost invariably “struck chords” across time-frames, opening the pores, it seemed, of my listening, to register those resonances and almost “feel” the inter-connective tissue. Even so, I suspect there was more to this process here than mere “cheek-by-jowling” the pieces in question.

What delighted me was that, in the instances where I knew the music, Pestova’s actual playing seemed to me to completely inhabit the work and its evocations, physical, intellectual and spiritual, so that her performances had a “stand-alone” quality which satisfied in their own right, and not merely served as forerunners of “x” or resonances of “y”. Here was a remarkably sensitive, thoughtful and totally involved interpreter at work, whose understanding of the there-and-then of each piece seemed as potent as her awareness of its connections with the past or the future.

Her playing of the concert’s opening work, Debussy’s La cathedral engloutie, for instance, brought a potent amalgam of clarity and atmosphere to the evocation of this subterranean miracle – the tolling bell at the work’s outset at once focused our sensibilities amid a spacious ambience charged with mystery. Right through the work Pestova seemed able to balance all kinds of like exclusives, with, in places, breathtaking results, no more so than during the aftermath of the main climax, where the playing became suffused with a quality akin to an interior world of sound, quite unearthly – her control of both dynamics and tone-colour I thought remarkable, both in forward movement and, as here, in retreat. I found the ending very Lisztian, resonant and beautiful.

Pestova’s interpretation was then further enriched by her programming of the next work, an uncannily different-but-similar piece called Gothic, written by Irish composer Ed Bennett who just happened to be present in the St.Andrew’s audience! Prior to the work’s performance, the composer came forward to tell us of his fascination with the atmosphere of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and of his attempts to recreate something of that unique resonance, particularly when those spaces were near-empty, and the building itself could “speak” without interruption.

Big, jagged chords alternating with the pianist’s vocalisations created uncanny echo effects, while repeated note passages brought forth echoes of Musorgsky’s Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in a dead language) from Pictures from an Exhibition. Generally the composer used the piano itself as an enormous cathedral interior space, using a variety of dynamics and textures, and creating sounds which were left to resonate over these same spaces, augmented by the pianist’s vocalisations – which actually had the last word.

Domenico Scarlatti’s music was the starting-point for the group of pieces that followed – two keyboard sonatas which again highlighted Pestova’s skills as an interpreter, her performances gently and cooly activating the music’s textures and colours rather than setting sparks flying, and clearly contrasting the middle section of the D Major work with its outlying territories, generating a real sense of exploration of the differences.

American-born contemporary composer Patricia Alessandrini’s “response” to this same D Major Sonata took the form of an Etude after Scarlatti, beginning with a pensive kind of dialogue set up by the pianist between the direct activation of exterior keys and interior strings, straightaway creating wondrously spacious atmospheres and amazing Cage-like silences! Pestova’s note on the music talked about “the changes of colour between (the gestures)”, evident in the “charged atmosphere” wrought by what framed these silences, a kind of dichotomy between focus and distance, resulting in something I found magical and elusive.

The pianist then, I think, played the Luciano Berio piece Brin (1990) before another work After brin (2000) by Daria Dobrochna Kwiatkowska, a Polish-born UK-based composer. Berio’s piece was one of a set of six encores, of which Pestova gave us three. My unfamiliarity with the music resulted in a modicum of confusion regarding the programme’s actual order, here – but it seemed to me that we heard the first Berio encore and the Kwiatkowska “response” to that piece. Berio’s work featured repeated notes played with the intensity of searchlights, alternated with single notes that were sounded here as if they were bells – the contrasts of different registers and ambiences of these groups creating a heightened response to each one, as well as to the phenomenon of what Daria Dobrochna Kwiatkowska beautifully characterised in the Berio work with the words “Music happens between the notes”.

Kwiatkowska’s piece After brin was a student exercise involving a response to Berio’s work, the younger composer seeking to capture a certain diffusiveness of Berio’s same pitches and note-positions, but with clusters of notes rather than isolated tones. I thought it echoed the original inspiration in slow-motion, with Debussy-like colourings irradiating the stillnesses, and billowing the intensities upwards and outwards – a most attractive piece.

Returning to Berio’s work with the remaining two “encores”, we heard Feuerklavier (1989) and Wasserklavier (1965), each of the pieces “saying its name” in performance, Pestova’s playing again seeming in both cases to reach into the music’s substance and activate those same particular qualities – thus Feuerklavier rumbled, bubbled chattered and fermented, with occasional irruptions of energy, the figurations darting about, seeking everything out, and tumbling in all directions, while the Wasserklavier was all limpid textures, almost Debussy-like in its liquidity and subtlety.

JS Bach’s Little Prelude” BWV939 in C Minor flowed and chattered its course up to the cusp of Auckland composer Glenda Keam’s new work Mind Springs, a piece which began explosively, resembling the sudden onslaught of a nightmare in a scenario which might have promised order and structure. Keam’s programme notes spoke of water in bubbling, babbling mode, accounting for the piece’s moments of whimsy, though these soon found themselves besieged by ever-insistent figurations, becoming in places trenchant and demanding – the music’s title kept the listener waiting for the next leap into a different mode, be it textural or gestural. Our kaleidoscopic listening journey took us to a number of these expressionist realms, filled for example with murmuring insect activity in, around and between mystical chords whose trunks rose from leaf-laden ground, then without warning transfixed by the onset of supercharged birdsong, strident, jagged-edged outcrops and liquid ostinati – amid a raft of suggested influences the composer gave significant prominence to “distorted echoes of JS Bach”.

The interval brought with it the opportunity to re-establish our bearings in the wake of the variegated candour of what we’d encountered so far in the recital – so much full-fronted creativity and recreativity, perhaps even awakening echoes of T.S.Eliot’s words, “human kind cannot bear very much reality” in its direct impact. Having girded our loins we awaited what was to follow – pieces by two New Zealanders, Annea Lockwood and Miriama Young, and by two more off-shore contemporary composers, and still more from an iconic nineteenth-century performer who happened also to compose, if well-and-truly in the shadow of her more illustrious composer-husband.

So, our sensibilities refreshed, Xenia Pestova welcomed us back to the crucible of experience that we’d embarked on earlier in the afternoon and were about to continue, beginning with a piece by Annea Lockwood, called RCSC, the combined initials of American composer Ruth Crawford Seegar and pianist Sarah Cahill (who commissioned the work in 2001 as one part of seven pieces in honour of Seegar.) Annea Lockwood achieved fame bordering on notoriety for a work she wrote to parallel the achievements of Christian Barnard, the world’s first heart transplant surgeon – Lockwood called her 1960s/70s work Piano Transplants, one which involved submerging, burying and/or setting alight defunct, irreparable, and unwanted pianos. The instruments were in many cases abandoned, most of them along London’s Thames River. Pestova assured us that she would not be setting fire to the piano on this occasion, when playing Lockwood’s work!

It wasn’t what I expected – I’d read enough about Lockwood’s music to imagine her work as anarchic and uncompromising, and featuring all kinds of unconventionalities – and it was to my utmost surprise that this work came across to my ears as ambient and beautiful, spacious and thoughtful. At the beginning, Debussy-like sonorities were contrasted with the metallic tintinabulations of string-plucking, augmented by the use of dampeners for a contrasting effect.Widely-spaced chords conjured vast spaces into which the dampened notes “drubbed” as if the music was trying to dance while in sacks – and yet another section featuring slides and glissandi from string manipulation brought to mind the mysteries of the col legno sections of the Introduction to Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Then followed two sections which depicted responses by contemporary composers to older and more established musical realisations, each of the latter being the music of JS Bach.A third “parallel presentation” featured a less-than-contemporary but profoundly of-its-time work by none other than Clara Wieck Schumann, whose creative efforts were for many years ignored as being of little worth compared with those of her husband, Robert, and of far less importance than her skills as a pianist! Concluding the recital, then, was a new work by Australian-based New Zealand composer Miriama Young, a work called The Grey Ghost, more about which below…..

Demonstrating once again her characteristic feeling for the essences of the recital’s “older” pieces, Xenia Pestova gave us some more JS Bach – firstly, a cheerful, propulsive E Major Prelude BWV 933 No.5, bringing out the music’s ceremonial qualities, and highlighting the contrasts with the companion BWV 933 E Minor Prelude, a lovely, piquant “stroll” whose trajectories enabled the music’s world of feeling to sound right up to the last note and beyond, to my ears totally avoiding the new-age “authentic-performance” tendency to rattle through pieces such as these, leaving the trampled-on fragments on the floor in the playing’s wake.

Then came Canadian composer Heather Hindman’s 2005 work for solo piano Two and a Half Miniatures, a piece chosen by the ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music) to feature in a recent (2012) World New Music Day. The music’s more overt aspects – vigorous single-note declamations which spanned and then distended octave-leaps, hammer-blow cluster chords and spectacular glissandi, repeated rise-and-fall figurations punctured by more hammer-blow chords whose accelerated repetition resembled a giant steam locomotive attempting to move off – appeared to be “haunted” by an ambient background kept alive and resonant by the sustaining pedal, and to which the composer referred as the “underneath” – besides the resonances there were string-activated glissando-like voices towards the piece’s end reminding one of Schlegel’s comment re Schumann’s Fantasia in C – “the soft note for one who listens secretly…..”

Two more Bach pieces followed, a brief, questioning A Minor Prelude (No.4 from the Sechs kleine Präludien BWV 939), and a graceful C major Prelude (No.6 of the same set), music in which Pestova seemed to bring out its exploratory instincts, the player enjoying the music’s modulatory impulses, and pensive,”somewhere-else” ending.

For any musician, performing a piece of music dedicated to and written specifically for them must be an experience like no other – and though Xenia Pestova wasn’t giving a “world premiere” here, it was at least a New Zealand “first” for American-born composer Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, in this instance three of the ten individual pieces that make up the entire work. The first of these three pieces, Painted Bunting, was dedicated by the composer to Pestova, something of a compliment in more ways than one, the bird itself (albeit the male!) having been described as the most beautiful in North America, accounting for its nickname “nonpareil” (without equal)!

The pianist, not unexpectedly, greatly relished the motifs, textures and energies of the eponymous bird’s music – characterful, attention-seeking treble scintillations set the silences tingling, in the midst of which disturbance was set a somewhat mournful mid-range call. Gradually the lower voice energised and became more insistent and mirror-like in relation to the scintillations, creating definite and formidable synergy, there – a stunning display of avian personality.

Sierra’s other two portraits, Cicada Sketch, and Titmouse, were no less evocative in effect, the first featuring solitary ambient calls over dark landscapes, impulses that resisted any underlying agitated irruptions, suggesting spacious, dogged persistence. As for the Titmouse portrait, it seemed like a sound-sketch of a supremely-determined obsessive, Pestova’s playing remarkably split-second in its dovetailings of detail.

The more Bach Pestova played, the more I wanted her to continue! – here, it was another from Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier, the fourth Prelude in D Major of BWV 933. While listening and enjoying, I kept on making mental notes of parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier I wanted to hear her interpret! However, such mental wanderings on my part seemed singularly unhelpful regarding the job in hand, which was to express and relate the music to that timelessness of being which Pestova herself alluded to in the recital’s introduction.

Interestingly, the third of Clara Wieck Schumann’s Op.16 set of three Preludes and Fugues seemed to me almost uncannily like a minor version of the Bach piece we had just heard. Pestova brought to this work the same qualitites that had illuminated the previous work. I would make a guess that the shade of that great Bach interpreter Franz Liszt would be nodding its approval at the ear-catching amplitude of the music’s different voices as presented here on the piano. The Fugue began from a quiet and simple place of origin, and proceeded with remarkably-inflected eloquence to the point where it had given its all – no wonder that I wrote, while spell-bound by the music’s revelatory progress, “she (Pestova) makes fugues make sense”!

Though Pestova’s recital seemed to have the subtitle Gothic, as per programme, I preferred the title of the work by Miriama Young already referred to, The Grey Ghost, which was the final presentation of the afternoon. This was described by the composer, who was present, as “a meditation in piano and electronics drawing on the ancient song of the once prolific North Island Kokako”. The actual “Grey Ghost” of the title refers to the South Island Kokako, a sighting of which was last recorded at Mout Aspiring National Park fifty years ago, and unfortunately not  seen or recorded since then.

Speaking with us about her work, Miriama Young confessed to us that this presentation was the fulfilment of a dream of hers regarding involving an audience with sound performance. She had prepared what people who know about these things call an “App” on her website for people to download and play on their smartphones as part of the overall performance of the work. We had a brief tuition session from the composer regarding what was necessary for us to do, and it seemed to bear fruit and effectively “sound” in some quarters of the auditorium. Needless to say, my technophobic efforts with my own smartphone were unsuccessful, but it left me able to properly take in the concerted efforts of the pianist and her cyber-cohorts to recreate Miriama Young’s work “The Grey Ghost”.

Those of us who had managed to secure the “App” had ‘phones poised ready for Xenia Pestova’s downbeat – the bird’s song came out of the ‘phones extremely softly and atmospherically, a haunting, ambient environment through which the piano could sound, the figurations rolling and resonant, with occasional declamatory tones seeming to echo the bird’s tessitura. Gradually the piano built up towards a climax not dissimilar to that of the “Engulfed Cathedral’s” which had begun the programme. after this, the piano itself seemed to become like a bird, rather than a resonator – the pre-recorded sounds were assisted by being played through the church’s sound system as well as the individual ‘phones. As the piece gradually subsided the piano contented itself with resonantly-produced fragments of the figurations we heard in the piece’s first half, everything having a deep and almost magical presence, the various “sources” of the sounds creating a beautifully diffuse and ultimately elusive atmosphere.

We were all thanked, pianist, listeners and sonic artists alike, at the piece’s end by the composer, who was obviously thrilled and moved by the happening and its effects. A brief encore later – a Chorale for something quiet,  written by Wellingtonian Thomas Liggett (who was present) – slow, deep rich and meditative music, whose privacy and inwardness was breached at the end by the merest pinprick of light – and this remarkable recital was over. That this review’s been a long time in coming is indicative of the spell cast by Xenia Pestova’s playing of old and new items alike, making this listener think afresh about what was familiar, and ponder deeply (and at great length) over the new and introduced works and their thought-provoking realisations. Bravo!

Electric music and music-theatre – Nicholas Isherwood


Nicholas Isherwood (voice), Michael Norris (sound diffusion)

Isaac Schankler: Mouthfeel / Lissa Meridan: shafts of shadow
Jean-Claude Risset: Otro / Michael Norris: Deep Field
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Capricorn

Adam Concert Room

Thursday, 21 August 2013, 7.30 pm

The Adam Concert Room darkens. Electronic sound wells up like a rushing wind. After several minutes, a tall, gaunt figure mounts a platform at the back. The lights fade up to reveal the futuristically silver-clad spaceman from the Dog Star.

So began Stockhausen’s Capricorn, an adapted segment of his longer work SIRIUS. Low electronic sounds underlying Nicholas Isherwood’s voice gradually rose in pitch over the half-hour (or so) of the piece, with a few exceptions, such as when the bass frequencies returned, heavily amplified (perhaps over amplified) to eclipse the voice at the point of climax. Near the end, a hauntingly naïve tune emerged out of the abstract texture, and Isherwood produced ethereal vocal harmonics (especially written for him by Stockhausen).

In 2009, Isherwood had performed Havona, part of Stockhausen’s last composition, in the same venue. Again, incongruously, I was reminded of Harry Partch. In Havona, it was chintzy synth-sounds that suggested the Partch chromelodion. In the mid-period Capricorn, it was the stylised poses (futuristic here, rather than antique) assumed by the actor-singer.

Isherwood has worked with Stockhausen, and with an impressive list of other 20th and 21st century composers, including Iannis Xenakis, whose La Deesse Athena (“The Goddess Athena”) and Kassandra, he will be performing with Stroma in their “Goddess and Storyteller” concert on Sunday (1 September 2013, VUW Hunter Council Chamber, at 4 pm). Isherwood is also the author of the forthcoming The Techniques of Singing, chapters of which will cover (among other things) extended vocal techniques, and the twelve-odd gradations between the whisper and the scream (yes, he can do them all!).

The first half of the concert consisted of world premieres of four of the six pieces for voice and electronics, that will make up The Electric Voice (the remaining two, I understand, have not yet been completed). As programmes had run out when I arrived (more had been printed by half time), I listened to the first half “blind”, knowing only that there were two New Zealand works (by Michael Norris and Lissa Meridan), and two by unfamiliar international composers (and I had no idea of the order).

The first piece was a tour de force of Isherwood’s extended techniques, such as mouth-sounds, isolated abstract phonemes, deconstructed words (“prrrrroduct”), along with the occasional vocalise. I thought: Swedish sound-text poets, Bob Cobbing, Ernst Jandl, and other sound poets, and Berio’s treatment of e. e. cummings’ poems in Circles. I thought it was not New Zealand, and I was right. Mouthfeel, by US composer Isaac Schankler, was a sort of anti-advertisement for a brand of taco.

The second composition also had something of sound poetry about it, but here there was more vowel content, and some beautiful falsetto singing that was chorused through the electronics. I thought that this, too, was not New Zealand, but I was wrong. It was Lissa Meridan’s shafts of shadow, in which the singer listened to a track through headphones and translated what he heard, vocally.

The third piece made extensive (and effective) use of panning the sound around the loudspeaker array. I thought this might have been Meridan: the bell-like chimes near the beginning reminded me of the gamelan, which Meridan would have heard when she was director of the NZSM Electronic Music Studio, and the French words could have resulted from her now living in France. But no, it was Otre by international composer Jean-Claude Risset (the only piece in this Electric Voice group not a full premiere, apparently being a version of a previous composition).

The fourth work impressed me immediately, even without my knowing that it was by Michael Norris. Deep Field I sets ancient and historical astronomy texts, with Isherwood’s voice weaving freely over sustained, elongated syllables in the live electronic part. The effect is reminiscent of the twelfth century free organum of Leonin, that moment in history when western music stood poised to develop as a single melodic line of rhythmic suppleness and intonational subtlety, over slowly changing drone notes (akin to, although still different from, middle-eastern and Indian classical music). Then Leonin’s successor Perotin added the third voice, setting western music on its path to the forty-part motet and the Symphony of a Thousand.