Tamara Stefanovich’s Utterly Compelling Advocacy of Three American Masters

02/03/2016

Copland, Carter, and Ives: Tamara Stefanovich (piano). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 26.2.2016 (MB)

Copland – Piano Variations
Carter –Tri-Tribute
Carter – Two Thoughts about the Piano
Ives – Piano Sonata no.1

This will prove, I think, to be a recital long echoing in the memories of those present. The music of three very different composers were here heard, a common theme perhaps more the utterly compelling advocacy and virtuosity of Tamara Stefanovich than any intrinsic musical connections between the works. That did not matter a jot. Stefanovich’s welcoming manner – she prefaced the Carter pieces and the Ives with very helpful introductions – would have drawn anyone in. The warmth and volume of the applause following Charles Ives’s First Sonata said it all.

If Aaron Copland wrote a better work than his 1930 Piano Variations, I do not know it. Stefanovich gave at least as good a performance as any recording I have heard. (I do not think I had previously had the opportunity to hear it live.) The opening sounded stentorian, provocative. It took, quite rightly, a little while to yield, construction and drama revealed to be as one. I loved Stefanovich’s grand, Romantic manner with the work, sounding every bit as much music for the Steinway as Rachmaninov; indeed, at times, Copland sounded positively Lisztian. The music could melt, tenderly, in similar fashion too. Leonard Bernstein called the work ‘as hard as nails’. That was not really how it sounded here. Rather, Stefanovich seemed to posit – or at least I heard – something of a rapprochement avant la lettre between Schoenberg and Stravinsky; perhaps there was even a sense of Prokofiev at his most radical. More importantly still, Stefanovich proved herself here an unmistakeably original musical thinker, beholden to no performing tradition; I really must hear her again in Boulez’s Second Sonata, since I now fear that, on a previous occasion, I listened far too much with my own preconceptions to the fore.

Elliott Carter is widely recognised as the greatest of all American composers. Here we heard works from his extraordinary final period, approaching his century. Slipping in a cunningly unattributed Ivesian reference (his father’s advice) to her introduction, Stefanovich told us that this was music to ‘stretch the ears’. It was indeed, but so had Copland’s work been too. Different metrical speeds ‘in a very confined space’ was an apt frame of reference for us to hear the three miniatures of Tri-Tribute. They sounded, in their way, as something of a petite suite, and had a wonderful sense of playfulness. In Two Thoughts about the Piano, ‘Intermittences’ brought what sounded like a post- Messiaen hierarchy of dynamics. And again, I thought: what wonderful use of the Steinway! Sparks flew, as it were, in ‘Caténaires’: electric as well as electrical, with an intriguing, indeed delightful post-Webern sonority. The sense of a single line – akin to a cable – was unmistakeable, a moto perpetuo for the Internet age.

It was also my first opportunity to hear Ives’s Sonata no.1 in concert. If less single-minded than Mahler, it emerged certainly as more akin, in that most celebrated of symphonic contrasts, to Mahler’s vision than to that of Sibelius. If it did not quite embrace everything, it had a wonderful stab at doing so, perhaps all the more touching, all the more daring, for its defiant lack of polish. Again, Schoenberg came to mind, especially at the beginning; I had to remind myself that Ives’s writing preceded Schoenberg’s op.11. Thereafter, take your pick: everything seemed to be present. The grand, Romantic sound we had heard in Copland seemed revivified here; we did not seem so very far from the challenge of the Hammerklavier Sonata. The revelations and mysteries of Ives’s compositional choices – what are we to make of the appearance of What a Friend we have in Jesus, and the use to which it is put? – were as extraordinary, as baffling, and yes, as moving, as ever. This was a bravura performance, if ever I heard one. ‘Silent’ Kurtág was the perfect encore response: witty and surely just as loving.

Mark Berry

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