Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stefanovich gives stellar performance of works by Messiaen, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Ligeti in Portland Piano International recital

© Frank Alexander Rümmele
Tamara Stefanovich performed one of the most intriguing piano concerts that I’ve ever heard on Monday evening (October 20) at Lincoln Hall. Her concert, sponsored by Portland Piano International, paired older works with newer works in a way that connected with the audience. The first half of the program consisted to two works by Olivier Messiaen that sandwiched one by Franz Liszt, and the second half layered etudes by Sergei Rachmaninov and György Ligeti. All of the pieces were played brilliantly by Stefanovich, but the exchange of etudes left the biggest impression of the evening. That’s because Stefanovich found the core of emotion in the Rachmaninoff’s music, which seemed to look to the past, and also in Ligeti’s, which seemed to look into the future. But the other big factor was that the Ligeti pieces were so engagingly strange.

The program notes, written by Elizabeth Schwartz, and the introductory comments and demos by Stefanovich were very helpful in appreciating the music, especially in regards to the Ligeti etudes. For example, in his Étude No. 3 “Touches bloquées” (“Blocked Keys”), the pianist has to use one hand to quietly press down on a group of keys in order to block notes played by the other hand. In his Etude No. 15 “White on White,” only the white keys are played. In some of the piece, Ligeti throws in random notes that apparently have no relationship at all to the other notes flying by, and Stefanovich, in her remarks, noted that the composer was basically trying to trip up the pianist.

Stefanovich’s pairing of six Ligeti études with six by Rachmaninoff worked superbly. In fact, each seemed to expand the sonic landscape of the other. She deftly explored colors and feelings in the Rachmaninov selections, but each one seemed to segue naturally to world of Ligeti. Starting with Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, Op, 33 No. 1 in F minor, Stefanovich brought out the descending bass line yet kept it balanced with the playful melody in the treble. This was followed by hectic nimbleness of Ligeti’s “Blocked Keys,” which ended in with a funny way that caused some in the audience to chuckle.

Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, Op, 33 No. 2 in C Major was impeccably played by Stefanovich, who exhibited marvelous control of trills and notes that danced around the keyboard while bringing out the melodic line. She followed this with Ligeti’s Étude No. 10, “Der Zauberlehring” (“The Apprentice Magician”), which featured a helter-skelter of staccato notes with a sustained note here and there. Both pieces taken together were truly magical.

An so it continued with four of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op. 39 (Nos. 1, 4, 8, and 9) that were juxtaposed with Ligeti’s Études Nos. 15, 8, 2, and 13. Stefanovich created colorful sonic landscapes with the Rachmaninov, controlling the dynamics and playing with verve. The Legiti selections were usually witty and spirited – the last one (“The Devil’s Staircase”) ended up in a jazzy chase scene.

The first half of the concert began with Messiaen’s “Le courlis cendré” from “Catalogue d’oiseaux” (“Curlew” from “Catelog of Birds”). The music reflected a series of bird songs that varied in loudness and softness. Stefanovich’s playing also conveyed an impulsiveness that sounded very natural and oddly appealing.

The next piece was Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing”), which is the title of one J. S. Bach’s cantatas. The music, reflecting Liszt’s emotional state after having lost two children, seesaws from bold, demonstrative statements to exquisitely delicate passages. Stefanovich played wild arpeggios with élan and the tender, lyric sections with grace. But the best part was the long, Bach-like chorale. It was glorious and seemed to assuage some of the turmoil.

From Messiaen’s “Quatre études de rythme” (“Four Rhythm Studies”), Stefanovich played the “Ile de feu I” and “Ile de Feu II” (“Isle of Fire 1 and II”). These pieces , dedicated to Papua New Guinea and its people, were quite explosive with all sorts of bizarre and eccentric sounds. At times Stefanovich hands were at the extreme opposite ends of the keyboard. The music became almost disjointed during the section that made me think of someone who suffered from Tourette syndrome. But that was all part of Messiaen’s design to convey the “ferocious and violent” spirit of the Papua New Guinea.

The audience went wild after the Stefanovich concluded the final Ligeti étude. She gave two encores and the second one was Claude Debussy’s “Étude 6 “pour les huit doigts” (“Eight fingers”). I didn’t catch the name of the first one, but both were virtuosic, and Stefanovich played them with panache. She is a tremendous talent, and hopefully we will see her again soon in Portland

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