Tamara Stefanovich: Influences
Each of the four pieces on this disc specifically embraces diverse cultural references: Ives’s First Sonata’s American popular idioms circa 1900 (rags and marches), the Hindu rhythms informing Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ, Bartók’s treatment of Hungarian peasant songs and Bach’s ingenuous appropriation of Italian Baroque styles in his BWV989 Variations. As a programme per se it seems top-heavy, with the monumental Ives placed first and Bach at the end. It turns out to be a programming masterstroke, as you’ll soon find out.
The overall excellence of Tamara Stefanovich’s interpretations is enhanced by a superb multichannel recording characertised by full-bodied ambience and concert-hall realism. Stefanovich voices Ives’s thick and ringing chordal dissonances from the bottom up, taking full measure of the music’s spaciousness and resonant potential. This works notably well in the first and final movements’ gloriously drawn-out codas. Curiously, Stefanovich holds back in the ‘In the Inn’ chorus, missing the unbridled vocal revelry that William Masselos brought out in his pioneering mono and stereo recordings (RCA, 7/67, desperately in need of reissue), and she also underplays the ragtime rhythms so petulantly projected by Jeremy Denk and Joanna MacGregor. But these are minor quibbles.
Charles Rosen called Bartók ‘a 20th-century composer who was a 19th-century pianist’. Certainly Stefanovich approaches the Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs with the kind of singing line and nuanced warmth that we don’t usually hear from bleaker and bangier Bartókians! Compare, for example, Florent Boffard’s ample-toned yet relatively austere phrasing of the first piece (Mirare, 1/19) next to Stefanovich’s flexibility, or his fierce, harder-hitting rhythm in the second piece alongside Stefanovich’s beguiling lilt, and you’ll get what I mean.
In Cantéyodjayâ, Stefanovich takes greater care than many pianists over bringing out dynamic contrasts, observing the composer’s rests and finding melodic shapes within the asymmetric rhythms. The clotted chords ring out with every note firmly in place and thoughtfully voiced. One might say that Peter Hill’s like-minded interpretation (Unicorn, 11/86) is dabbed in half-tints, while Stefanovich favours oils and a wide variety of brushes.
After more than an hour of substantial 20th-century fare, the appearance of Bach proves a veritable tonic in Stefanovich’s hands. What poignant embellishments in the Aria, what a combination of refined precision and long line in Variation 2. The pianist’s detached articulation in Var 6 takes telling shape by her slight crescendos on certain up-beats, akin to a choreographer getting dancers to move simply by saying the word ‘and’. And in the concluding Var 10, notice the pianist’s tiny shifts of colour to acknowledge harmonically miraculous moments. If Ives, Bartók and Messiaen reveal Stefanovich’s wide-ranging mastery, the Bach reveals her soul as well.