Pianist Stephen De Pledge Tells the Truth about Love

New ZealandNew Zealand    Granados, Schumann, Wagner arr. Liszt, R. Strauss arr. De Pledge, Anthony Ritchie, Prokofiev, Debussy: Stephen De Pledge (piano); The Old Library, Whangarei, 27.4.2014 [Pse]

Granados – Los Requiebros, from “Goyescas”
Schumann – Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15
Wagner arr. Liszt – Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde”
R. Strauss arr. De Pledge – Three Songs
Anthony Ritchie – untouched (Second Performance)
Prokofiev – Six Pieces from “Romeo and Juliet”
Debussy – L’Isle Joyeuse

Kiwi pianist Stephen De Pledge has built an imposing international reputation. According to the potted “bio”: he started his career with a Guildhall Gold Medal and a NFMS Young Concert Artists’ Award; his credits include solo performances and tours in the UK, Hong Kong, Italy, France, Singapore, Japan, Australia and USA; concertos with the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestras, chamber collaborations with Chamber Domaine, Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, ECO Chamber Ensemble and Scottish Ensemble, and chamber performances in New York, Dresden, Bogata, Shanghai, Paris and Beijing; involvements with numerous international festivals – plus, of course, lots of appearances in NZ!

Not too many in the Whangarei audience would have taken the trouble to wade through that lot, for the exceedingly simple reason that, in the last couple of years, Stephen has twice whetted our appetites in person. His performances at earlier Whangarei Music Society recitals – in October 2012 (with cellist Martin Rummel: review) and August 2013 (with the Antipodes String Trio: review) – caused such a stir that, regardless of any such roster of reported achievements, the prospect of a solo recital was mouth-watering.

Far from being one of those titles, tacked onto a pre-existing programme to create some specious semblance of unity out of the vaguest coincidence, W. H. Auden’s line, “Tell Me the Truth about Love”, had clearly governed Stephen’s choice of music. Whether or not intentionally, it turned out that his programme selection also highlighted his talent for characterisation.

First up, then, was flirtation (what else?), which Granados’ Los Requiebros surprisingly but saucily portrays as a predominantly somewhat impassioned activity. Stephen winkled out the necessary element of whimsicality less evidently lurking within the notes, striking an admirable balance between discipline and licence – or perhaps should I say “buttoned” and “unbuttoned”?

Thence to the opposite extreme, with Schumann’s affectionate take on the child’s imaginative world. I am assured, by those who know about these things, that Kinderszenen makes few demands technically; it’s obvious even to me that it nevertheless requires prodigious expressive virtuosity. Rarely have I heard Kinderszenen’s compact vignettes so deftly delineated. Stephen had scrupulously weighed every least detail against the whole, and the result was more mesmerisingly magical than most that I’ve come across.

It was hereabouts that I became conscious of an almost pervasive use of “tempo-bending” – rubato, tenuto and their ilk. Surely these inflections were not all marked, otherwise they’d have been too familiar to attract my attention. In my time, I’ve known a fair few fanatical score-followers, who’d have turned apoplectic at a performer taking such liberties with the sacred runes inscribed in the tablets of stone. I’ve never understood this attitude; a musical score is not so much an exact specification set in a “tablet of stone”, as a set of detailed guidelines written on a “mound of jelly”. Only pitch and relative duration are precisely specified (and, fortunately, they’re all you really need to pin down a work’s identity) – everything else is more or less vague and subjective, which is why performers are “interpreters” and not, as Stravinsky would have had us believe, mere “executants”.

Of course, interpretation itself is equally subjective, and, to close the loop, so is the listener’s assessment – and this is why we can all still have so much fun with music that’s been played and played again for centuries. Vaughan Williams put his finger right on it when, in respect of a great interpreter, he referred to, “. . . one who can take the dry bones of crotchets and quavers and breathe into them the breath of life.”

 The point of all that is simply this: in these performances Stephen convinced me that he’s one of VW’s “breathers”. None of his many interpretative nuances, whether or not marked by the composers and even though a lot of them pricked up my ears, sounded to me anything other than entirely “right”. Now, back to the action –

The third item completed a triangle of extremes: Wagner’s Liebestod, the closing scene of Tristan und Isolde, being the bit where Isolde literally dies of love, is most definitely not a playlist recommendation for getting a paramour in the mood. When a pianist chucks everything (including the kitchen sink) into his performance of Liszt’s arrangement, there may be bags of  sheer animal excitement, but the music also ends up sounding orgiastic, not to mention orgasmic, which destroys the essential spirituality of Isolde’s ecstasy. By graduating the surging passions into a crescendo of climaxes, Stephen ensured that he kept within himself at the peak, yet wasted not one drop of the music’s torrential emotional outpouring, optimally preparing the aching poignancy of the denouement.

 After that, Stephen’s own arrangements of three Richard Strauss songs – the lapping lullaby of Wiegenlied, the chordal simplicity of Die Nacht, and the somewhat spicier love-song, Cäcilie – played sensitively and without any undue elaboration, provided a much-needed balm to our seared ears.

 Written especially to fit in this programme, and here receiving only its second public performance, Anthony Ritchie’s untouched (apparently, it is spelt with a lower-case initial, though I’m blowed if I know what difference it makes) provided yet another angle. It is described as “a piece of great tenderness”. I must confess, I was a bit hard-pressed to detect any trace of the mood as advertised; to me it sounded more on the lines of mildly morose. Shot through with discordant pangs, and occasionally spitting streams of vitriol, this strangely involving music struck me (taking it in conjunction with its title) as being “about” the agonising frustrations of an entirely one-sided love affair.

Mirroring both Schumann for playfulness and Wagner for association of love with death, were Six Scenes from “Romeo and Juliet”, in which Stephen scored bullseyes with his tempi, accents, timbres and – especially – his idiomatic leaning on those “wayward” notes that are part and parcel of Prokofiev’s uniquely tangy, “sweet ‘n’ sour” style. Melting lyricism vied with brazen drama and toe-twitching rhythmic accentuations – I’d give top marks especially to the incisive pointing with which Stephen transformed the dance of the swaggering Mercutio into a real “bum-bouncer”.

 What better finale than L’Isle Joyeuse, a musical impression of the birthplace of Venus, goddess of you-know-what? Debussy, outdoing Liszt at his own virtuosic game, really went to town on this one. It was a delight to hear the hair-raisingly articulate Stephen, somehow keeping the heads of the melodic details above the water of the seething spume of ever-expanding ecstasy. Yet, even though the air crackled with palpable risk-taking and immense energy, there was that same undercurrent of “architectural control” that had so informed the Liebestod.

 After that, he really should have been sparked out, or at least in urgent need of a stiff drink. Instead, he came back and played an encore – a simple, unaffected Londonderry Air of sunset serenity. Had this recital, gripping as it was from start to finish, told us the truth about love? Well, maybe not the whole truth – but then again, does anyone know the whole truth?

Paul Serotsky

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