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Owen Mortimer

An equal music: Q&A with Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard

4:25, 29th December 2016

Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard discuss their partnership both on and off the concert platform and as a duo with very different cultural backgrounds

You first met as teacher and student at the Cologne Hochschule. Did you feel an immediate musical connection to one another?

STEFANOVICH He seemed to be utterly independent from interpretational traditions and thoroughly informed about every style – a golden mixture that I tried to achieve at that time.

AIMARD I felt an immediate spiritual connection with somebody burning with curiosity, possessing a mix of discipline and character, and with a wish to learn.

What qualities in each other’s playing did you most admire in the early stages of knowing one another? Has your mutual understanding and appreciation evolved over time?

STEFANOVICH Pierre-Laurent has a rare gift and mix of order and wildness. He is for me the only pianist that resembles Richter in his appetite for repertoire, his fearlessness and the fact that he becomes a creature, a force of nature, when he plays. Over the years, I’ve discovered an interpreter of Mozart concertos who touches me at the deepest levels.

AIMARD The qualities of the playing reflect human qualities, but the development of Tamara’s playing heightens these qualities. It seems to me that Tamara’s evolution as a pianist is remarkable, as her search for a superior truth is accompanied by an ever more breath-taking beauty.

Your first performances together came about as the result of a cancellation by another artist. Was it easy to make the transition to working together professionally?

STEFANOVICH We are not looking for an ‘easy’ anything. We’ve always been committed to music rather than to comfort. I am not easy on myself, nor is Pierre-Laurent – we strive hard to achieve our aims. But that said, it is increasingly hilarious to rehearse, as we know each other so well. We have to work hard not to keep cracking jokes or imitate each other and other pianists.

AIMARD Transitions are excellent: they teach you how to adapt to life’s changes – and life changes often. As for the particular transition you mention, I was impressed by the new natural authority of my now ex-student. What was not easy was the feeling that many people would not see from the very start that this was a duo with two equal pianists – and not a teacher and his student.

What do you think are the essential qualities of a good musical partnership?

STEFANOVICH Respect and responsibility are of the highest importance for both of us, in so much more than music alone. We are in some ways quite different – his dramaticism, for example, is almost scary; I, on the other hand, have a short fuse which can be volcanic. I guess French sang froid and Balkan fire is an original mix.

AIMARD Dealing with differences is as demanding as it is indispensable. This permanent fight is the prize you have to pay for achieving a superior goal –  the richness of the combination of differences. International politics often demonstrates this.

You are partners in life as well as in music. What impact does this have on your music-making?

STEFANOVICH Using a phrase in a rehearsal like, ‘Sorry, we will have to leave it here – I think the chicken is done, or the babysitter is going,’ is not something you’d say otherwise… Also, having a partner who can tell whether I’m going to prefer white or red wine after a concert just by scanning my face!

AIMARD The partnership in life is completely different than the partnership in work, and they shouldn’t be interferences between the two worlds. This is I believe how the rehearsals can be successful. That said, a colossal strength of harmony can occur during a concert.

Your forthcoming International Piano Series recital brings together two masterpieces for two pianos from the 19th and 20th centuries by Brahms and Messiaen – how do these works complement one another?

STEFANOVICH We have played both works with different partners in the past and have tried them in different settings. This is a first attempt to combine such luscious sounds from two different centuries on one plate. The ultimate goal is not to drown out one with the other, and to preserve the evolving monumental architecture of the different musical languages.

AIMARD Playing Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen together was such an experience that we decided to programme it again. The impressive Brahms F minor Sonata is the other monumental work for two pianos that can balance this gigantic fresco.

How different do you find it playing piano four-hands versus repertoire for two pianos?

STEFANOVICH  I admire colleagues who are comfortable in four-hand repertoire, but not having the alchemy of the whole keyboard and pedal at my disposal makes me claustrophobic.

AIMARD Playing four hands is an absolute delight for home concerts, and the repertory is sublime and extended! But this kind of intimacy doesn’t suit the piano recital setting, as Liszt created it, all that well.

You were born in Yugoslavia and France respectively, but now live in Berlin. How important is this mix of European cultures to your musical partnership?

STEFANOVICH I lived in a socialist country that turned nationalistic. I’ve also lived in the United States and France, and in Cologne, Germany. But Berlin is the only place where I find myself no longer wanting to move again – although I am anxiously thinking about the future. The country in which I want my family to live, especially for our two-year-old Arthur, should be one with free speech, women’s rights, environmental consciousness and an acceptance of  mixed cultures as a minimum – anything less will not work for me. The possibilities of cultural life here are golden, but if anything changes I will look hard at the choices that remain.

AIMARD Culture is made of mix, and the world in which we live today reflects and accomplishes the human need of blending. Today, however, the forces wishing to restrict the mix of humanity and culture are gaining space and frightening power. So, I am happy to live in one of the remaining countries where a majority of voters still chose tolerance and open mindedness as a priority. Additionally, I love to live in the city where a survivor of the holocaust, Imre Kertész [the Hungarian author and Nobel laureate], felt freer than in any other place.

What other projects and plans do you have coming up, both individually and together?

STEFANOVICH I have just curated a new contemporary piano music festival called ‘The Clearing’ in Portland, USA, and am already planning next season with my team.

AIMARD One of the most intense things I can imagine is the ‘Inspirations’ project with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia orchestra. Another is joining Tamara for the premiere of a new work for four hands by Vassos Nicolau at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr.

Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s two-piano recital ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ takes place at St John’s Smith Square on Tuesday 24 January 2017. Click here to visit the Southbank Centre website for further details.

French sang froid and Balkan fire: performing Stravinsky's 'Les Noces' with the Philharmonia. Photo by Camilla Greenwell
French sang froid and Balkan fire: performing Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces’ with the Philharmonia. Photo by Camilla Greenwell
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