Tania Stavreva is one of that breed of digital-generation classical musicians who are taking their careers tightly into their own agile hands. On top of a capacious talent, the Bulgarian-born, New York-based pianist has a distinctive sensibility evidenced by her choice of repertoire, which encompasses works by composers from her homeland as well as contemporary new music and her own compositions.
Rhythmic Movement, her debut album, solidifies the energy of her live performances and makes a winning argument for her independent approach, as well as for the highly rhythmic music she enjoys playing and for the Bulgarian composers whose work the album features.
But Stavreva bravely launches the set with one of her own compositions. The title track is a blitz of a piece that’s a crowd-pleaser in concert, and a lively introduction to a collection with a lot of dance-rooted music.
Some of the selections are refreshingly jolting, with, for example, time signatures that aren’t standard (to American and Western European ears, anyway). She doubles down on the opening track’s 7/8 time with “Ratchenitza,” Pancho Vladigerov’s setting of a traditional Bulgarian folk dance that races by in a skittering 7/16 count. That’s followed by the same composer’s “Mouvement Rhythmique” (are you starting to sense a trend?) in the strange-sounding Eastern European 2+2+2+3 dance rhythm I’ve heard more and more of in recent years, as a broad spectrum of musicians, ranging from classical violinist Lara St. John to jazz bassist Georg Breinschmid, dig into far-flung roots for “crossover” material.
Stavreva is not all sharp-edged rhythm. Comfortable with lyricism and romance, she displays mature sensitivity in Alberto Ginastera’s three “Danzas Argentinas” Op. 2, especially the second dance, and a killer mix of technical finesse and jazzy insolence in two “Jazz Concert Etudes” by Nikolai Kapustin, whom Stavreva calls “the Russian Gershwin.”
She marshals an expansive vocabulary of tone and touch in the album’s vivacious climax, Vladigerov’s variations on the Bulgarian folk song “Dilmano, Dilbero.” It’s the only piece of extended length, but it proves Stavreva can turns sparks into sustained heat. She even reflects on American folk traditions, with Mason Bates’s intriguing “White Lies for Lomax” (though her liner notes make the common mistake of misattributing a traditional African-American work song to Lomax, who perhaps preserved it by collecting an “authentic” recording but is not the composer).
The rhythmic second movement of Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22, marked “Ruvido ed Ostinato,” appears twice, the second a tight duo with drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour). It would be wrong to apply the label “crossover” to such a collaboration. Classical and concert music has taken inspiration from folk and dance music since time immemorial, from Bach to Bartók and beyond. Inventive musicians are continuing to bring exciting material from many cultures into that tradition even as they are being forced to depend more and more on independent initiative to further their careers. Though only in the early stages of hers, Tania Stavreva is already an exemplar, now with a knockout of an album to her name.