When Tamara Stefanovich appears with an orchestra, don’t expect the respected the Berlin-based pianist to play one of the standard concertos by Tchaikovsky or Brahms. More typical would be recent concert in which she presented a world premiere by Turkish composer Azeynep Gedizlioğlu and the rarely heard Concerto for Piano in A Minor, Op. 7, by Clara Schumann.
“It’s my view that we should always reflect on our time, the time we live in,” said Stefanovich, 45, who will join French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the opening concert Oct. 28 of the 2018-19 SCP Piano Series.
“Art should never be about reflecting back so much as reflecting on: How does it have meaning in the time that we live in? The question of playing certain repertoire, it’s not about new or old, it’s about which pieces need to be reflected on more. I have to be very aware of the creations of today, because I that is the role of the interpreter. It’s never about copying the past or trying to be successful or trying to replicate the old traditions. I think that is absolutely wrong.”
If Stefanovich does perform an older work, context is essential. There must be a particular occasion or a specific reason. “You will never see me playing a warhorse concerto just because it will ensure success,” she has. “It has to have meaning: Why in this menu? Why in this program?” To that end, repertoire drives her decisions in terms of what engagements she pursues or rejects. “For me, the success of a career is to play the pieces that I think need to be played,” she said. “It’s not about whom you play with, whether it’s an important orchestra or not.”
Born in Belgrade in what was Yugoslavia at the time (and is now Serbia), Stefanovich began studying with Lili Petrović when she was 5 years old and gave her first public recital at age 7. When she was 13, the budding pianist became the youngest student at the University of Belgrade, where she pursued music as well as such other subjects as psychology and education. She later studied with Claude Frank at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and attended the Cologne Hochschule for Music and Dance in Germany.
After Stefanovich had completed her main studies in Cologne, she decided to stay longer because her student visa had not yet expired. In 1997, she attended a master class with Aimard connected with Pierre Boulez’s Structures I (1952) and Structures II (1961), two related duo-piano works that richly display the French composer’s serialist techniques. Having been exposed to little contemporary music in her studies to the point, she was thunderstruck. “I thought: This is wonderful to be confronted with music that you cannot grasp immediately,” she said. “So for me, the unknown was never something that provoked danger in me but rather curiosity. That’s how it all started.”
She began studying what she called the “classics of contemporary repertoire” with Aimard. In 2003, when one of the French pianist’s performance partners was forced to withdraw from a duo-piano tour, he asked her to substitute at the last minute. The two have performed together regularly since.
“Once you love the instrument on its own,” Stefanovich said of the piano, “usually you love it because of possibilities of polyphony and colors, the idea of so many different instruments with just 10 fingers. To have that doubled, it’s a glorious opportunity for expanding this aural experience.”
Aimard and she are very different artists, she said, but they want the same result. “It’s basically you cook the same dish, but you approach it in a different way,” she said. “We’re extremely conscientious about understanding the work before we start to approach it.” There is much talk today, she said, of interpretative freedom and soloists asserting themselves in the music — notions that the two piano partners spurn. “I don’t see it that way,” she said. “I think the piece, when it is a good one — we try to really play just the masterpieces — it does have life on its own, and it has a story that wants to be told in a certain way. Of course, it does change a little bit by our presence and different acoustics, but it shouldn’t be violated in anyway.”
Aimard and Stefanovich tend to stick to 20th and 21st-century repertoire, in part because it was written for today’s powerful, bright-sounding concert grand pianos. In addition, much of this repertoire makes full use of the two instruments and does not merely double some of the same musical ideas as is sometimes the case in older works. In addition, the two pianists can take advantage of the “mind-boggling” range of today’s musical styles.
The duo’s latest American tour will open Oct. 25 at Carnegie Hall and consists of three other stops, including the visit to Symphony Center. It is essentially a reprise of an itinerary that the two undertook in 2015 that featured an all-Boulez program. In a glowing review of the twosome’s concert in New York on that visit, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini had plenty of praise for Stefanovich, especially her performance of the composer’s Sonata No. 2, which he characterized as “staggeringly brilliant.”
This program will feature Bartók’s Seven Pieces from Mikrokosmos, Ravel’s Sites auriculaires, Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen and Harrison Birtwistle’s Keyboard Engine, which the two premiered in England in June. Stefanovich describes the lineup as a “little journey” through some of the duo-piano music written in the past 120 years or so.
What is perhaps most noticeable about these four works, Stefanovich said, is the different treatments of rhythm. In Sites auriculaires, written in 1895-97, the rhythm courses through the work without being perceptible. “It seems like the elegance is woven in, like it’s something that it just has — nonchalant elegance,” she said. But in the group of pieces arranged for two pianos in 1940 by Bartók, rhythm is the driving force — the first element the listener notices.
She described Keyboard Engine as a series of boxes of rhythms and motives that Birtwhitle puts together like Swiss clocks. He winds a clock and then stops and then winds another. He mixes big grandfather clocks with small table ones. “But when I’ve heard the recording of it, it seems like there is so much outside energy being generated by that that you get utterly emotionally and intentionally involved with these rhythms that maybe most of the time don’t have a perceptible melody to them. But it seems like they are driving you to a climax and to an incredible sense of drama that is generated by this just one layer of music.”
Messaien’s Visions de l’Amen, a suite of seven pieces, was composed in 1943 for the Concerts de la Pléiade, which took place during the occupation of Paris during World War II. The work has a strong religious context, and it includes bell tones, choir-like effects and bird song and uses the full range of both instruments. “This is the only piece where we have really two completely different roles,” she said. “We’re like two cathedral builders who each start on a different side of the cathedral, and we find each other at the end on the very top. This is really an apocalyptic work. It’s a huge journey. It’s about 50 minutes of music that feels at once like five minutes and five hours. It’s a deeply changing experience.”
Both Aimard and she have played both parts with many different partners, so they have what she called a “4-D perspective” on the work, referring to the two parts for two hands. “We really know it inside and out,” she said. “It’s like a string quartet as if you would have played all of the parts. So this is what interests us. We try to light it up from all sides and see what happens.”
TOP: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. | Photo: Marco Borgreve