New Zealand pianist Stephen de Pledge’s new album of solo piano music takes it’s title from a line in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and presents a selection of ‘Love in Piano Music’
He begins with Kinderszenen by Robert Schumann, deceptively simple pieces which are reflections on childhood, written for his beloved Clara Wieck two years before they were finally granted permission to marry.
It was Liszt who first described the great final aria in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as her ‘Liebestod’ (love-death), and his famous transcription made for solo piano in 1868 and revised in 1875 is perhaps the ultimate expression of a ‘love song’ for piano. A landscape with too few lovers, painted by the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, inspired compatriot composer Ross Harris (born 1945) to write this piece for Stephan de Pledge.
Goyescas by the Spanish composer Enrique Granados is in two parts and ‘Los Requiebros’ (Endearments) is heard here. It is by turns flamboyant, seductive, and unmistakably virtuosic. Granados himself gave the suite’s premiere in 1911. Prokofiev’s arrangement of Ten Pieces for piano solo from Romeo and Juliet was the composers attempt to salvage some of his music from the original ballet score after the director of the Bolshoi, due to premiere the work in the 1935-6 season, was arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’ and shot.
It was Shakespeare, in a speech delivered by Romeo, who described love as “A madness most discreet”, an apparent oxymoron which encapsulates the sense of boundless possibilities those who love, or have loved, will recognise. Certainly love has its own logic to those in its thrall, to whom it appears able to overcome or transcend more mundane considerations. Such is its apparent “madness”.
It was against high odds indeed – specifically, the adamant opposition of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck – that the young pianist Clara Wieck and her beloved Robert Schumann, some nine years her senior, persisted in their love for one another. After five years of cruel intriguing by Wieck senior against their relationship, culminating in an ugly court case between himself and Schumann, Clara and Robert were finally married in 1840.
Two years earlier, during one of their enforced separations, Robert wrote to the then 18-year-old Clara on 17 March 1838: “I have discovered that nothing lends wings to the imagination so much as suspense and longing for something, as happened again in the last few days when, waiting for your letter, I composed whole volumes – strange, crazy, even cheerful stuff.” This burst of creativity, he confessed, was “perhaps a kind of echo of one of your letters, where you wrote that ‘I sometimes seemed to you to be like a child too’ – at any rate, I felt as though I were in short frocks again, and I knocked off some 30 amusing little pieces, from which I have chosen about 12 and called them ‘Kinderszenen’ (Scenes from Childhood). You will enjoy them, but you will have to forget you are a virtuoso.”
Kinderszenen, to which Schumann subsequently added one more piece, is both one of his most limpid yet most challenging suites. Several individual movements may be within the grasp of a talented child pianist, such as the opening ‘Of Foreign Lands and People’, or the well-loved ‘Dreaming’ (Träumerei); yet there are others that require considerable technical fleetness, such as ‘Blind Man’s Buff’. Even the final number, ‘The Poet Speaks’, simple as it is, requires a stretch of a tenth on its final chord, beyond the reach of any child pianist (the present note writer recalls the childhood pleasure of playing that number as a duet with his sister). This is surely significant: not only is that piece an epilogue spoken by the adult author, but the suite as a whole – child- like though it is – is really an adult’s recollection of youth, as Schumann made clear when the music critic Ludwig Rellstab annoyed him with the suggestion that he had attempted to portray an actual child in his music.
It was love that prompted Wagner in 1857 to temporarily stop composing his mighty Ring cycle, and turn instead to creating his opera Tristan und Isolde. Few works have captured the experience of being in love more compellingly, though it is hardly of that delightful falling-in-love experience where anything seems possible. Wagner was more of a pessimist at the time he composed Tristan: not only had his hopes of conquering Paris as an opera composer been dashed, but his new opera was inspired by his misfortune of falling heavily in love with an already married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of one of his most generous patrons. It was her (frankly mediocre) verse which inspired Wagner to write the so-called Wesendonck Lieder, yearningly beautiful songs consciously written as preliminary studies to his ‘memorial to this loveliest of all dreams’.
It was Wagner’s future father-in-law, Liszt, who first called Isolde’s great final aria in that opera her ‘Liebestod’ (love-death), so titling his transcription made for solo piano in 1868 and revised in 1875. This was one of Liszt’s many piano transcriptions of operatic excerpts, symphonies and other orchestral works by the various composers he admired, written to propagate their work in an age before either radio or gramophone had been invented. But Liszt was rarely content to merely place the notes at the pianist’s fingertips, perhaps least of all his own, without embellishing, rearranging or even in effect recomposing several of these works so they could be heard all the more effectively on his instrument. Though relatively short (certainly in relation to the four- hour opera!), Liszt’s transcription, which he titled Isoldes Liebestod, is a masterfully handled transfiguration: starting from the baritone end of the keyboard, with a short phrase taken from the lovers’ great duet in Act II, the piece is gradually infused with light, Liszt’s tremolandos not merely sustaining the volume of Wagner’s music but in themselves becoming a major part of the music’s texture.
Lovers indirectly inspire the Piano Prelude by New Zealand composer Ross Harris (born 1945). Its title, A landscape with too few lovers, is taken from the fifth of eight large canvases, Northland Panels, a series depicting landscapes from New Zealand’s northernmost sub-tropical region painted by the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. The piece was commissioned specifically for performance by Stephen De Pledge, as part of the ‘Landscape Prelude’ series staged during the 2008 New Zealand International Arts Festival. As Harris admits, the landscape theme stirred him to make use of the title he had long loved, which then stimulated his imagination to create the piece.
Love, or the promise of love, is more directly conjured by ‘Los Requiebros’ (Endearments), the first piece in the two-part suite Goyescas by the Spanish composer Enrique Granados. His inspiration was the old quarter of Madrid, as portrayed by the great 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, and the elegantly dressed majos and majas who conducted affairs of the heart there. ‘Los Requiebros’ is by turns flamboyant, seductive and unmistakably virtuosic. Granados himself gave the suite’s premiere in 1911, and was subsequently persuaded – most unusually – to transform the suite into a full-length opera. This was first performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1916, a performance which despite wartime conditions Granados and his wife sailed across the Atlantic to attend. Tragically, they subsequently drowned when their ship, en route from England to Spain, was torpedoed by a German U-boat: Granados himself was almost saved, but lost his life when he dived back into the sea intent on rescuing his wife.
We finally turn to Romeo and Juliet, the play from which the title of Stephen De Pledge’s recital is taken, and the most celebrated musical treatment of Shakespeare’s play from the 20th century. Prokofiev in person was bluff, direct and even sometimes brusque. That this appearance was deceptive is fully borne out by his ballet Romeo and Juliet with its ardent yet totally unsentimental love music. Getting this staged in Stalinist Russia, though, was far from straightforward: initially scheduled to be produced at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre during the 1935-36 season, the production was first postponed, then scotched when the theatre’s administration was purged, the director Vladimir Mutnïkh arrested as “an enemy of the people” and shot. Not knowing that his ballet was eventually to be staged in 1940, Prokofiev, desperate to salvage at least some of its music, made several orchestral suites and an arrangement of Ten Pieces for piano solo. The latter, although presenting several numbers out of their dramatic sequence, still manages to present the ballet’s emotional trajectory. Certainly it reaches its natural culmination in the final number, ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’: this is the suite’s longest and most substantial number, in which all the principal love themes are heard before some of Prokofiev’s most bleak music – associated with Juliet taking the sleeping potion (and used again in Prokofiev’s anguished Cello Concerto of 1938) – brings the suite to its downbeat end.