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Max Rashbrooke on Bach remastered

Bach remastered

New Zealand Festival: A New Zealand Partita
Stephen De Pledge
Tuesday 27 February
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

A Festival performance is often a great impetus for innovation, and so it was for New Zealand pianist Stephen De Pledge in his reworking of Bach's Partita No. 3 in A minor. De Pledge commissioned short pieces by New Zealand composers to respond to each of the movements of the Partita, then played them in an alternating fashion. And the performance, after an instructive, clear and unaffected introduction by the pianist, was overall a delight.

As De Pledge noted, the rich acoustics of St Mary of the Angels gave an extra depth and resonance to the sound. That, combined with a certain lushness of playing, might not have satisfied those who prefer a more intellectual approach to Bach, and there were moments when I would have liked a greater sense of the original idiom, a snappier, dancier rhythm and crispness. I would also have liked greater dynamic contrast between the different sections within each movement. But there's lots of different ways to play Bach, as long as you pull them off convincingly; and even if it ends up sounding a bit more like Lizst, I'm not complaining on the whole.

De Pledge's warm, inviting sound was on full display in the Fantasia, while the first of the response pieces, Leonie Holmes's Fantasia, had some beautifully fragmentary and evocative moments, but at times also sounded a little bit like soft jazz. Next up, the original Allemande was a great exercise in playing not just the notes but also the mood behind them, while Chris Gendall's Monolithe Allemande was a playful response, possibly poking fun at the towering challenge of taking off Bach, as well as playing with the tension between a tonal anchoring and the modern tendency to disrupt it.

Both the original Corrente and Christopher Norton's response were great fun, the first a well-marshalled torrent of notes and the second a good-humoured mad rollercoaster ride of a piece. Then came the movement that De Pledge has identified as the heart of the work, the Sarabande, which he played with a noble, almost regretful tone; it was a deeply poignant moment of music-making, with each different section beautifully articulated. In return, Alex Taylor's Sarabande, Inertia Study did, a little like Norton's piece, seem to play with ideas of progress and stagnation, using repeated open chords to great effect.

After the Burlesca, Juliet Kiri Palmer's Burl was a real delight, pulling out the richness of Bach's ornamentation but giving it an eerie, almost ominous feel, a sensation amplified by De Pledge's humming, hissing and keening along with it. Celeste Oram's horseracing-inspired $cher.zo (yes, you read that right) had some lovely textures, and a sense of excitement and adventure about it, although I had mixed feelings about the gambit of getting the pianist at intervals to break off and pretend to watch the races.

The Scherzo itself fulfilled De Pledge's promise to let the modern compositions influence the performance of the original: it had a wonderful, vibrant feel, as if you could almost hear the horses' hooves. So too in the Gigue, the final movement, and Helen Bowater's response piece. All up it was an excellent idea, a great way to shine a new light on the old master, and with playing to match. This was no abstract Bach, but Bach in the living blood.

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