Astonishing Virtuosity from Tamara Stefanovich in a recital notable for its Musical Discrimination

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S.Bach/Busoni, Kurtág, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Ligeti: Tamara Stefanovich (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 5.3.2017. (GPu)

J.S. Bach (arr. Busoni) – Chaconne (from Partita No.2 for Solo Violin, BWV 1004)
Kurtag – Pieces from Játékok (‘Blumen die Menschen’, ‘Doina’, ‘Blumen die menschen, nur Blumen’, ‘Spiel mit Unendlichen’, ‘Pantomime’, ‘Ieises Gesprach mit dem Teufel’)
Liszt – Variations on ‘Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen’
Rachmaninov – Étude-tableau, Op.33, Nos. 1 & 2; Étude-tableau, Op.39, Nos. 1, 4, 8 and 9
Ligeti – Études Nos. 2, 3, 8, 10, 13 &-15

Of the pianists I have seen and heard in concert in the last twenty years or so, Tamara Stafanovich is perhaps the one who most makes me think of the piano virtuosi of a previous age, such legendary figures (more or less!) as Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein and Godowsky. Not because there is anything ‘dated’ about either her attitude or her repertoire, but because she has, like them, a fascination with difficulty, a joy in overcoming the challenges set for her by composers, a technical command which dazzles and astonishes.

Like them, I suspect, her standard of what is ‘difficult’ is not one most would share. I don’t normally make any use of the so-called ‘social media’, but the day after this concert, a student at the RWCMD, who I had spoken to in the interval of the concert, emailed me a link to Ms. Stefanovich’s Facebook page. There I found two messages posted in the aftermath of this Cardiff recital. In one she reported that one of her shoes had split as she left the stage at its close (something she jokingly blamed on the Ligeti études she had played in the closing part of the concert). The second message read, in its entirety thus: “Done,12 etudes plus some ‘light’ stuff in first half. I deserve some pancakes.” Few, surely, would describe Busoni’s elaboration of Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ or Lizst’s Variations (of which Alan Walker wrote that the variations “grow towards a cataclysm and the keyboard starts to weep and wail beneath the player’s hands”) as “light”, an adjective Stefanovich can only have intended in a technical rather than emotional sense. Nor, indeed, are the ‘games’ of Kurtág’s Játékok ever simply playful.

Ms Stefanovich, for all her prodigious technique, never neglects the ‘human’ dimensions of the music (as in the grief-filled pages of Lizst’s ‘Variations’, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein and written in 1862 in the aftermath of the death of Liszt’s daughter Blandine). Nor is Stefanovich the kind of pianist who draws attention to her technique with excessively histrionic gestures at the keyboard. In her performance of Busoni’s comprehensive re-arrangement of Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ for solo violin, she fully respected the way in which Busoni finds means to retain more than a little of Bach’s intellectual clarity, while elaborating the harmonic language enormously. The whole made for an exhilarating listening experience.

Leaving the “light stuff” (!) behind, the twelve études which made up the second half of Ms. Stefanovich’s recital were both played superlatively well and thought-provoking. To qualify for the title ‘étude’ (if, at any rate, it is to retain a place in the piano repertoire) a piano piece must, it seems to me, both contain substantial technical challenges and have some worthwhile expressive content. The relationship between the ‘technical’ and the ‘expressive’ may, of course, vary from piece to piece and composer to composer, as may the relative prominence of each of these elements.

The twelve études which closed this recital, six each by Rachmaninov and Ligeti, were played in a kind of ‘interleaved’ sequence – one by Rachmaninov followed by one by Ligeti, then another by Rachmaninov, until all twelve had been played. This sequencing, with its repeated contrasts, brought home vividly the difference between the two composers’ use of the ‘étude’ tradition.

As a listener, rather than a player, I find myself very much in agreement with much of what Boris Giltburg had to say in the booklet notes he wrote for his 2015 Naxos recording of Rachmaninov’s Op.39 Études-tableaux:

“The technical difficulties of these [pieces] are apparent, but, in my opinion, nowhere in piano literature does the term ‘étude’ – study – have as little meaning as when discussing Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux. The weight of the other elements – the emotional, the storytelling, the world-creating and atmosphere-building – is so great, that the technical difficulties are almost an inconvenience we impatiently want to overcome in order to gain access to the material underneath.”

In Ligeti’s eighteen études, the balance is rather different. Quite a few of them are, in effect, interrogations of piano virtuosity itself, the composer fascinated with the setting of challenges for the performer, drawing on a huge variety of idioms (jazz, African music, the avant-garde of the mid twentieth century, gamelan music, the piano works of Nancarrow, the keyboard writing of Scarlatti and much else) to create complex structures often based on one or two repeated techniques. Although there is a kind of poetry to be found in the resulting music, it often feels very much secondary to the technical complexities.

Tamara Stefanovich’s reading of Rachmaninov’s Opis 33. No.1 was characterised by outstanding rhythmic control, while her performance of No.2 from the same set was ravishingly lyrical, full of that Slavic melancholy so characteristic of Rachmaninov. In between, came Ligeti’s Étude 3 (Touches bloquées), in which the overlaying of two rhythmic patterns dominates, with one hand playing a quick succession of rapid notes, while the other ‘blocks’ some notes by holding the keys pressed down. The result is intriguing, but the ‘technical’ fascination is certainly the predominant effect, while anything one might call poetic or emotional expression is, in this étude at least, of decidedly secondary interest.

Elsewhere, as in his Étude 15 (White on White), Stefanovich showed us a Ligeti who ‘balances’ the ‘technical’ and the ‘expressive’ more equally, in a piece which after a peaceful opening canon, continues with a more frenetic central section and ends with a relentless closing passage, all (except the close) played on the white notes alone.

The temptation to comment on étude after étude has to be resisted. The sequence of twelve études played by Ms. Stefanovic was a testimony both to her formidable technical accomplishments and to her powers of musical discrimination. She really is a remarkable pianist. Some of the legendary virtuosos mentioned earlier, to which number one might add Liszt himself, might have brought more charisma and ‘showmanship’ to the performance of such music, but I find it hard to believe that they could have brought more technical certainty to the task.

Glyn Pursglove

Leave a Comment