Stephen de Pledge, one of the most vibrant and versatile pianists of his generation, is a New Zealander with a worldwide reputation. He is best known here for his Landscape Preludes, commissioned from 24 leading New Zealand composers. He teaches at Auckland University, alongside British cellist Martin Rummel, who is described by the legendary cellist William Pleeth as “a performer of outstanding merit, with a splendid career ahead of him”.
Their well-balanced programme includes Beethoven’s C major cello sonata, a late work of extraordinary beauty and power, then three works from the Russian romantics: first the excitement of Schnittke’s cello sonata; then the virtuosity of Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, taken from the charming ballet Pulcinella; and finally the Shostakovich cello sonata, best remembered for its extraordinary ostinato harmonics, soulfulness, unusual pianissimo effects, caustic wit, and ebullience.
Sunday 10 June 2012 - Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall
Season 2012, Sunday 10 June - Stephen de Pledge and Martin Rummel
MARTIN RUMMEL (cello) and STEPHEN de PLEDGE (piano) in highly successful programme for Wellington Chamber Music – 10 June 2012.
It sounded as if De Pledge and Rummel had decided to keep the best till last – the best rehearsed, that is. The second, third and fourth items were excellent.
Beethoven’s C major sonata is unusually short (about 15 minutes) and has an unusual shape; the cello opens alone, presenting a sad, descending motif that, as the piano joined, became a sharing of intimacies between the two; it had real charm. But as that passage drew to a close and the much more forthright Allegro vivace took over, there was an uncomfortable disconnect between cello and piano, the latter seeming unaware of the imbalance that resulted from its impact. Often the two instruments echo each other, at other times the two are almost at odds and care has to be taken to assure a unity of feeling, rather than what I felt to be the piano tending to assert its primacy.
Perhaps the lid should be down, but in the later pieces where the balance was perfectly measured, De Pledge showed that he could get quiet and sympathetic sounds with the lid on the long stick.
Added to that was an occasional smudge or missed note in the piano.
The second movement, particularly the final section, another Allegro vivace, was affected in the same way, with the piano dominating, making too much, for example, of the sudden fortissimo chords that recur. Though, in a spirit of fairness, I wondered whether the cellist should be sharing the blame, I concluded eventually that the cello was following the composer’s intentions scrupulously.
Having gone on at undue length about the first quarter hour, I must now exclaim about the excellence of the rest of the afternoon. I have not been completely won over to Schnittke’s poly-stylistic vein, but the first cello sonata suggests the styles of different eras in a coherent, integral way. Again, the cello makes its entry alone, somewhat anguished, which the piano soon picks up. The two instruments seemed in warm accord, hearing each other with complete understanding; I enjoyed the rhapsodic cello passage with discreet punctuations by the piano.
The stark dynamic contrasts between cello and piano in the second, Presto, movement were splendidly pronounced; the piano often had a more commanding role here, too, but the sense of a carefully prepared approach was always evident. So it was with the cello’s upward, singing line in the concluding Largo and the piano’s exquisite pianissimo phrases. In their hands, the last movement was a most interesting, engaging experience.
Martin Rummel entertained the audience with some piquant anecdotes about Stravinsky, making comparisons with between the written language employed by him and Prokofiev; I forget the pretext, but the matter was interesting, even amusing: Prokofiev abbreviated to the point of eliminating all vowels while Stravinsky’s language was always meticulous.
The Stravinsky suite, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella, could have been originally written for these players and indeed, one could feel that the music of Pergolesi’s contemporaries which was then thought to be by the latter, was Stravinsky’s natural idiom. Here again, balance between the two instruments was admirable, and they conveyed in a fluent, warm manner, the dancing spirit that imbued most of the pieces, even through the unruly rhythms of the Tarantella. Stravinsky was never a composer to follow tradition slavishly and in the Minuet the players stretched normal expectations in a way that was both cavalier and sentimental.
Shostakovich’s cello sonata, from the early 1930s, is one of his best known chamber works, well-furnished with melody as well as with its constantly interesting developments and the opportunities that Rummel and De Pledge grasped to make the most of the great variety of articulation and expressive devices that Shostakovich provides. The vivid and lively scherzo-style second movement came off particularly well, enriched by the combination of a traditional framework in an idiom that could not have existed before the advent of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. It rather overshadowed the following Largo. In the finale, both instruments had their moments of supremacy but the running was pretty evenly balanced, with marcato cello passages giving way to careering scales in the piano.
So ended a splendid programme in which the only 19th century piece emerged as rather less successful and memorable than the three works from the 20th century.
Lindis Taylor (www.middle-c.org), Sunday 10 June