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Music of the Century

New York
Roulette, 20 Greene Street
04/16/2010 -  
The Modern Piano Project
Mason Bates: White Lies for Lomax (2007)
Carl Vine: Rash for Solo Piano with CD (1997) – Sonata No.1 (1990)
Samuel Barber: Fuga from Piano Sonata Op.26 (1949)
Claude Debussy: Préludes (Bruyères – La fille aux cheveux de lin) (1910)
Marc Rossi : Dream Catcher (original version, 2009) (World Premiere)
Alberto Ginastera: Sonata No.1, Op.22 (1952)
Sergei Prokofiev Suggestion Diabolique, Op.4, No.4 (1908)

Tania Stavreva (Pianist)

T. Stavreva (© Rémy Dubois)

New Yorkers looking for mainstream music last night would have been frustrated. Up in Symphony Space, players of the New York Philharmonic were playing new works by Sam Shepherd and Matthias Pinscher. Down in Carnegie Hall, Louis Andriessen and Bang On A Can were going to present more contemporary music. Unfortunately, the composer of the Divine Comedy opera suffered a Divinely-Generated Tragedy. Iceland’s volcanic ash prevented his associates were flying back, and the concert was canceled.

Even further downtown, the 26-year-old pianist Tania Stavreva was giving an exceptional concert of 20th and 21st Century music with names mostly unknown. I hadn’t heard Ms. Stavreva before, but her outstanding reputation preceded her. Not only numerous prizes from her native Bulgaria, but as a student of Michael Lewin at the Boston Conservatory, Ms. Stravreva had won the Chamber Music Honors Competition, the Piano Honors Competition and other awards. After these, her numerous performances in America and Europe have received excellent reviews.

Most attractively, this pianist has never played music to win audience popularity. Crowds do not stand on long lines to hear Ginastera, Scriabin and her countryman Alexander Vladigerov, but she has no hesitation in programing rare music–and let the devil take the hindmost.

Down at the Roulette, a hall near Canal Street better known for rock and jazz, Ms. Stavreva sat down at a less-than-pristine Steinway, and let her finger fly over music for the younger audience, mainly of composers and pianists themselves. And while Ms. Stavreva did have names like Debussy and Barber, the major portion of the hour-long recital was devoted to other favorites.

Neither the piano (whose soft tones were not quite audible) nor the hall (with curtains masking diverse pianistic colors) were especially conducive to great playing. But her fingers overcame those difficulties in the most difficult works.

For some reason, Ms. Stavreva opted for two of Debussy’s less taxing Preludes, possibly to give a chance for us to relax. But both “Heather” and the ultra-familiar “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” showed nicely practiced fluidity.

The other relatively familiar work, Ginastera’s First Sonata was, for this listener, the highlight of the recital. It takes a real technician to essay the Presto, and to bring out those mysterious folkish melodies in the beginning. But the slow movement of this Sonata starting like that Scarlatti “Cat’s fugue” but developing into the most delicate tapestry, was played with a personal sensitivity difficult to find elsewhere.

The other fugue was the finale of Samuel Barber’s E flat Sonata, and was played with a jaunty almost rollicking sense. To finish off, the pianist played Prokofiev’s “Suggestion Diabolique”, which I had heard but 48 hours before in a Bronfman encore. He had the right piano, the right Carnegie Hall setting and the right strength. Ms. Stavreva played it with a bounce. But diabolic it was not.

Of the new works, one, Mark Rossi’s Dream Catcher was written for Ms. Stavreva (quite a gift for the young artist). At first, the rhythmic motifs were interesting, but not exactly accessible. At that point, Ms. Stavreva did what every recitalist should do with a new work. She repeated it.

Repetition should be the rule. Once in Hong Kong, conductor David Atherton played Webern’s Six Pieces for a totally uncomprehending audiences. On the spur of the movement, he turned to the grouchy listeners and announced that they would be repeated. The audience, recognizing at least some of the structures, actually began to smile a bit, to remember.

When Ms. Stavreva played the Rossi work, the opening rhythmic motif at the start and some other little measures began to fit together, to make sense even in its arcane structure. A third reading some time will give even a better feeling.

The first work was dedicated to the great Alan Lomax, the American equivalent of Béla Bartók in rooting out our folk music. But Mason Bates’ White Lies for Lomax, was reaching for jazz more than blues, the James Johnson ‘stretch’ piano, a bit cleaned up. The sounds at the end of Lomax actually coaxing some Mississippi blues was the real thing.

Australian Carl Vine contributed two pieces. The first, Rash used more electronic sound, sometimes imitating the pianist, sometimes playing different music entirely. This was fun, entrancing, very clever.

The second work, his First Sonata had textures made for Ms. Stavreva. Her hand stretch is frankly not those of a Rachmaninov, but the rhythm and drive she gives to all her pieces can’t be denied. This work was not only rhythmically driving, but the sounds and textures piled on one another, the octave runs were extremely difficult, and it seemed to have two different rhythms for left and right hands.

Like the other pieces, Ms. Stavreva worked the piano hard, played with intensity and obvious pleasure. Like Dream Catcher, nobody would have objected to a repeat of the music, but even one performance was satisfying.

Harry Rolnick



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