Everybody should visit the 1901 Arts Club at least once, even if just for the novelty. Venues need to create a niche in order to survive in London’s overcrowded music scene and the Arts Club seems to have done just that: think fin de siècle social-club-cum-arts-salon. The bigger problem for venues in London, however, is how to tempt first-rate performers away from the Barbican, Southbank Centre and Wigmore Hall. Whilst she is hardly a household name, Bulgarian-born pianist Tania Stavreva is exactly the sort of performer these venues need: combining genuine quality with a refreshing approach to programming.

Tania Stavreva © Reggo Wilson
Tania Stavreva
© Reggo Wilson

In fact Stavreva’s unique approach to programming – incorporating everything from Bulgarian contemporary music to on-stage body painting – has been the distinguishing characteristic of her career thus far, and this came to the fore from the outset with a performance of one of Stavreva’s own compositions. Rhythmic Movement in 7/8 was only a short piece – initially composed as incidental music to accompany the entrances of Caliban in a theatrical performance of The Tempest – but it showcased Stavreva’s firmness of articulation and energetic playing excellently. Some of the denser textures in the lower register verged on the muddy at times, but this can probably be put down to the acoustic of the Arts Club’s drawing-room-sized performance space.

More Bulgarian music followed, including a fine performance of Veselin Stoyanov’s Prelude in 9/8. The prelude’s musical language was somewhere between Debussy and Satie, with a romantic tinge to the harmony at climactic points, and Stavreva’s performance displayed great sensitivity towards the sweeping harmonic gestures whilst maintaining the rhythmic fluency demanded by the piece’s sparser moments.

By the time she reached a pair of Nikolai Kapustin Jazz Concert Etudes, some of the finer examples of classical-Jazz fusion you’re likely to hear, the musical affinities between the pieces on this seemingly disparate programme were beginning to become clear. Stavreva clearly has a penchant for rhythmically adventurous music, even if her interpretation here was a bit strait-laced for “jazz”, as well as music that blends modality with harmonic luxuriousness. As such the programme up to this point and beyond served as an effective introduction to 20th century compositional voices that stand outside of the modernist framework through which music of the last century is so often understood.

American composer Steve Holtje’s Four Gymnopedies, Tribute to Satie, receiving its UK première, were a further example of this softly-iconoclastic aesthetic, one that has been especially prevalent in American music of the last 60 years. Consisting of four brief movements, each of which magnify and develop material from Satie’s original Gymnopédies, the enriched harmonic language of Holtje’s pieces suited Stavreva’s playing better than the delicate Satie Gnossienne that was performed as a preface to these pieces.

Other than her two encores, a pair of intimate works by Roberto Piana and a reprise of Rhythmic Movement in 7/8, the final work on the programme was Alexander Vladigerov’s Variations on a Bulgarian Folk Song. After such a buffet-style programme, it was good to have a slightly longer piece to finish proceedings and Vladigerov’s dramatic variations fitted the bill nicely. In fact the work ended up giving a reasonably fair account of Staveva’s playing generally: both exciting and knowing, but occasionally a touch deadpan. Nonetheless Stavreva’s performance as a whole was an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Her style, admittedly a touch affected at times, fits in with the singularity of the venue perfectly, even if every piece on the programme was composed after 1901!

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