Perspicacious Performances by Rummel and DePledge

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Shostakovich: Martin Rummel (cello), Stephen DePledge (piano), The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 28.10.2012 [Pse]

Beethoven: Seven Variations in E flat on a Theme from “The Magic Flute”, Wo046
Stravinsky: Suite Italienne (after “Pulcinella”)
Debussy: Reflets dans l’Eau (from Images, First Set); Clair de Lune (from Suite Bergamasque)
Shostakovich:Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano, op. 40

Even as their three-concert 2012 prospectus went to print, Whangarei Music Society was declaring an intention to find a fourth. And find it they did, albeit at something approaching the eleventh hour. However, there was nothing “last minute” about the quality of either the programme or the performances.

Martin Rummel (cello) and Stephen DePledge (piano) are both musicians of international repute, and both currently teaching at Auckland University. They also make an uncommonly effective duo, as was immediately evident in Beethoven’s captivating Variations on a Theme from “The Magic Flute”. By presenting the theme in all its proper classical formality, and keeping his variations largely decorative, Beethoven nicely accommodated the spirit of Mozart. This was underlined by the duo’s sprightly, intelligently-accented playing. They made lively, witty work of it – apart from when being really soulful, that is.

It was in these soulful episodes that I started to become aware that Rummel possessed an extraordinarily resonant cello. This revelation was gradual, not because I am especially dim (at least, not in this respect), but because he was keeping his instrument on a judiciously tight leash – as soon became apparent in the second work, which also gave the cello a chance to show it could be a pretty sharp cookie as well as a fulsome crooner.

The Suite Italienne is a reworking by Stravinsky, in partnership with the cellist Patigorski, of music from the former’s ballet Pulcinella, itself based on pieces by (or, more accurately, formerly attributed to) Pergolesi. This is utterly delicious music, the already lively baroque originals being liberally spiced with quirky syncopations, harmonic astringencies and abundant instrumental “special effects”. Rummel revelled in divers tremolandi, glissandi, pizzicati and what-have-you, whilst DePledge got to attempt – inasmuch as it’s possible on a piano – an impression of a mandolin!

After a brief interval, Rummel took a rest while DePledge took centre-stage for two solo items. This turned out to be a really neat move, because so far the piano’s rôle had been largely that of a fairly self-effacing accompanist; these solo items thus drew the audience’s undivided attention to the sterling qualities of the pianist, who – in the final item – would be on a fully equal footing with the cellist.

DePledge elected to play two of Debussy’s most famous piano pieces – the relatively early Clair de Lune and the relatively late (and more adventurous) Reflets dans l’Eau. I was spellbound. I kid you not, you’d have to go a long way to find them better played than this. It seemed that DePledge had melded every facet of his considerable technique and sensibility to realise these wondrous miniature sound-worlds just as the composer’s aural imagination had intended.

The programme’s final and by far the most substantial item was Shostakovich’s hair-raising Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40, composed in 1934. It gave me pause to wonder; this was when Shostakovich’s star was in the ascendant, fully two years before the Soviet first came down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. Yet, if this particular work is anything to go by, the extraordinarily articulate Shostakovich was already feeling decidedly uncomfortable about the darkening socio-political horizons.

This perspicacious performance was as stunning as the music, by turns impassioned, gloom-laden, vicious and gleefully sarcastic. Rummel’s sorrowing cello laid bare the third movement’s feeling of desolation (soon to be supplanted by isolation), ultimately finding some cold comfort in DePledge’s empathetic piano. However, the watchword was not “defeat”, but “defiance”, which they double-underlined in the brittle posturing of the second movement’s “military” dance – a classic piece of Shostakovichian sarcasm – but most especially in the Sonata’s astonishing finale.

The shade of Mozart hovers briefly but significantly over the opening, soon scattered by a huge bang! that unleashes a raging torrent of music veering with blood-curdling rapidity between extremes of mood, dynamic and attack. The players’ clear-headed unanimity, if anything, actually intensified the red-hot, no-holds-barred way they tore into this tumultuous music, guaranteeing the appreciative audience an experience that will live long in the memory – not at all a bad way to end a successful season.

Paul Serotsky