Brighton Year-Round 2023
Elia Stavrou gave a recital at St Nicholas Church of mostly Fauré piano music, with a coda of two Debussy pieces in a short, exhilarating recital
Elia Stavrou’s a young pianist as tyro. Not content with a very busy schedule, he found lockdown the place to not only learn new repertoire suitable for the times, like many; he managed to create a studio and a recording company at the same time.
Stavrou brings his own handsome programme, from which he pays here the second half lasting 30 minutes, dominated for once by Fauré. You can find him on stylish-filmed YouTube performances and then reflect what’s he’s like live. Very.
Stavrou’s personable, as you’d expect: goes with the territory. His playing though is searching, a mix of quicksilver panache and brio at the L’Isle Joyeuse and at the end), he’s most attuned to Gabriel Fauré, joining that illustrious if select group of pianists who’ve specialised in complete surveys: Germaine Thyssens-Valentin (1902-87) supremely, Jean-Philippe Collard (1951) and Kathryn Stott (1957) whose 1990s survey is regarded as the finest modern one.
He’s got a French piano here too. That might challenge some of the more enharmonic corners of late Fauré, that sheer depth of tonal slide, but not the more brilliant fare.
The Debussy followed the main Fauré pieces. Starting with the early lucent Barcarolle No. 1 in A minor Op 26 of 1881. This is a singing piece, an evocation of water and sailing. Through his 13 Barcarolles Fauré ceased to portray boats ad in the 5th and 6th he was portraying the shimmer of water itself, experiential language of immersion. Later though he began to envision the whole boating metaphor as a journey across the Styx, and the Barcarolle – already tinged with death in say Offenbach and later still Henze – became the agent for the most profound of Fauré’s developments. This song-like Fauré suits Sardou perfectly in his chiming brilliance and the piano likes it too. It’s under four-and-a-half minutes, immediately memorable.
By the time we get to Impromptu No. 3 (of five) in A fat Op 34 (1883) we’re in very slightly different territory. There’s an improvisatory side to Fauré that gets encoded in the later works. It’s a swift allegro-ish flowing piece, too swift for a Barcarole, and a bit like a scherzo-manqué. It suits Stavrou’s panache perfectly – something we’ll see in Debussy.
Its middle section moves to the minor and more shaded area of youthful melancholy with some fascinating harmonic explorations that suggest – as so much early Fauré does – a late romantic complexity that’d seem troubling in the early 20th century. Lasting under five minutes it’s still early mature Fauré.
Prelude no. 7 of nine though is much later, from Fauré’s 1909-10 Op 103, and again in A – this time pure A major . Not that you’d think it, despite its relatively clear-cut tonalities for late Fauré. The onset of deafness, and the strange ‘stammering grief” Bryce Morrison discovers beyond its major-ish assertions make this two-minutes quite deceptive, drawing you into a wandering distractedness breaking out from the interrupted flowing confidence of some of its sections, as if grief is a smiling recursive number.
Finally from the same period – rich in Nocturnes (9-11) and Barcarolles (8-11) – Barcarolle No. 10 in A minor Op104/2 from 1913 is the gem of the recital. Stavrou, not content with attacking the notion that much Fauré sounds similar has mischievously created a trip around the key of A just to make thing difficult for himself, though not for his audience.
Back with No. 1’s A minor, No. 10 is the dark gem and heart of this recital. Stavrou plays as if his heart depended on it. the piano copes amazingly well with much of what Stavrou puts it through, even here, with the harmonic slides and deep-set melancholy that inhabits worlds we’re not wholly invited into, as it opens with slowly placed chords, ripples uneasily between life and death pulses to its close. In just three minutes, it’s bewitching and modern, urgent and timeless, bleached and rich.
The two Debussy pieces that close the recital in comparative harmonic brightness (not even comparatively with the last) opens with Masques, a bright, harmonically slipping piece (as befits masks) and its ambivalence over minor/major, tragic masking of feelings and French restraint, not commedia dell-arte. Written in 1904 the same year and in the same key – E – as L’Isle Joyeuse and intended as part of a tripartite suite including the two pieces, it has none of the normal innocence associated with the key. It’s a strange, unsettled work, needing to be far better-known.
L’Isle Joyeuse – also singular in Debussy’s output – is indeed one of his very best-known works, published days apart from Masques in the autumn of 1904.
The island might have been Jersey celebrating his affair with future wife Emma Bardac, but it’s transformed into Watteau’s painting of nearly 200 years earlier: L’embaraction pour l’isle de Cythere – that’s Venus’s island, and the lovers are all ready for the journey.
From a rippling exuberance barely contained Stavrou knows how to build this work as it launches itself then sideslips to reverie, and finally thunders back where excitement pullulates out of it. A sea-shimmer Debussy wrote near (like La Mer) it stamps out a left-hand theme with right-hand riffing in frankly orgasmic glissandi as the piece explodes in a visceral – and virtuosic – climax, both private and public at the same time.
Stavrou’s a deliriously gifted musician with a focus on French piano, and Fauré in particular. Studying with Jeremy David for 15 years, himself a pupil of Vlado Perlemuter (1904-2002), and through him te great Alfred Cortot and Ravel, he has an impressive pedigree with French pianism. I recall Perlemuter giving a masterclass at Brighton College. The American pianist needed only a few pointers in his ‘Jardin sous la pluie’. But a young British woman, thrust forward by an over-ambitious piano teacher, was mercilessly savaged, clearly nothing like ready for such attention. I think Stavrou would have delighted him, as he clearly delighted crowds.
Norman Jacobs under-sung heroic concert-organiser and all-round musician, has him in his sights for his series at Hassocks.