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You could see it in her face (which I saw in profile) as she read the scores and came to passages that engaged and enchanted her. (She played the Debussy beautifully in the programme that she was repeating from Béla Bartók’s recital in Aldeburgh, and even gave an encore of his prelude Footprints in the snow, but the look wasn’t there.) There was a definite smile, and there was the sort of reaction as if she were studying details of a lover’s face and suddenly finding a new expression, or a new way of the light catching it.
According to the quotation from Diderot that Richard Sennett had read at his lecture two days earlier, if it had not betrayed immersion in the communion between the composer’s score (between her and that of these three male composers), making faces during a performance would have been a bad approach to playing. As for me, I liked it, seeing her light up, sometimes even surprised (at a score that she also played yesterday), because she was obviously so much at one with what she was playing.
With Bartók, I noticed that she relished passages with cross-rhythms, the more declamatory statements of a theme (as towards the end of the Romanian Folk Dances of 1915), and also had a fondness for the fay and fantastic, the swaying movement or the outlandish gesture.
I was paying less attention at the outset of the recital, which had three Scarlatti sonatas that I do not recall hearing before – not, then, so much good for Bartók in his choice (and, I gather, he had made an edition), as shame on us in this century (and the last) that we still play just relatively few. Nonetheless, it was clear that Stefanovich was delighted at the articulation of a new theme, and how the music developed in certain places.
With regard to the way that the programme itself built up, Bartók had made a selection that worked well. For example, his Three Burlesques (started in 1908) could have been written in the knowledge of Debussy’s Pour le piano (finished in 1901), and Bartók might, for that reason (or because he anyway thought that they would lead well into the other composer’s world*), have placed them where he did.
Likewise, the Allegro barbaro had space, before and after, just to be itself, not throwing the other pieces into relief, but providing a contrast. Stefanovich made this programme her own, seeming quite at home with it: playing the composers with equal conviction, and giving us the subtlest dynamic variations, after the liveliness of the opening Prélude, in Pour le piano. Debussy himself then seemed especially sure of the bewitching power his themes in the second and third pieces (Sarabande and Toccata).
Happening to speak to Tamara Stefanovich briefly later, I clarified with her whether she had seen her remit to recreate Bartók’s performance. She told me that, although she had listened to recordings of his playing and had noted how he varied his adherence to time, she had not set out to imitate him, but to interpret the music as herself in the light of what she had heard.
It was a very impressive and thoughtful recital of seventy minutes without a break (I imagine that a break would not have been feasible on the original occasion, with a schoolful of girls to be settled in the church hall). My only doubt was, when it was not – as it no longer exists – the church hall in which Bartók played, what point there was in having the recreation recital in somewhere not ideal.
In fact, the Yamaha grand piano dwarfed the stage, leaving little room, on one side, for the wonted upright, and, on the other, the performer: I simply do not know how authentic such a black beast would have been to a performance in a town in the 1920s. I suspect that Bartók’s music may have proved a bigger beast, because it was my perception that the piano went out of tune.
An addendum :
I have since belatedly read the entry for these events (Stefanovich had given the recital, at the same place, the day before, after the lecture by Malcolm Gillies about Bartók's visits to Britain), and I need to say that there had been a reason, although a slightly tenuous one, for using the church hall in Aldeburgh (rather than a room better fitted to the quality of both the playing and the programme). It turns out that this hall had been the former chapel of Belstead Girls' School, and had been re-errected for the parish as its church hall.
However, although Bartók's programme for the recital is known (in his lecture, I am fairly sure that Mr Gillies had not - whether he had one - displayed an original printed document that set it out), and also that Bartók had been invited to play at the school itself. The performance was mainly for the benefit of the girls (although others could pay to be admitted : Mr Gillies showed the document that advertised the concert, which specified no programme, only five shillings for a reserved seat, otherwise two and six).
The venue remains unknown : the advertising does not give it, and, although Mr Gillies had the chance to interview a pupil (part of which he shared with us), it appears that doing so did not shed light on the question. So it may may have been the chapel, now serving as the church hall, but it may not...
* I come back to what I wrote about Colin Matthews and his orchestrations, feeling again that – just as it does a hand – the Debussy fitted its instrument like a glove.
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