Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831)
Nocturne in B flat major (1827)
Zara Levina (1906-1976)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1925)
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Sonata No. 2 (1952-1953)
Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)
Sonata No. 2 in A flat major (1921)
Bojana Petrovic Aleksova (b. 1985)
Pieces for Piano (2005)
Natasha Stojanovska (b. 1987)
Phantasy No. 2 (2009)
Phantasy No. 1 (2008)
Natasha Stojanovska (piano)
rec. 2020, Louise E. Addicott and Yatish J. Joshi Performance Hall, South Bend, USA
NAVONA RECORDS NV6440 
North-Macedonian pianist Natasha Stojanovska’s principal motivation in this progamme was to set the record straight in the minds of the listening public. There have been many women composers, in this case from Eastern Europe, whose names are barely known, if at all. When they are known, they are often discounted in favour of male composers from the same cultural area.
A notable example is Maria Szymanowska, whose music is compared to that of her fellow countryman Fryderyk Chopin, but Szymanowska was not merely born 21 years earlier. She wrote the Sonata in B flat major when Chopin was only 17 – and he was inspired by her! Who knew? That is the point, however, as we should know, and now we do. So many assumptions are made in music. Take the long-lived belief that Chopin invented the nocturne: that distinction now belongs to John Field (1782-1837). Fate is fickle. It is not always obvious what, for example, gave Chopin’s name and music their high esteem, while other highly skilled and worthy composers remained in the shadows and at the margins. That is why the dedication of people like Stojanovska is to be applauded for bringing such composers in from the cold.
Szymanowska’s nocturne makes one hear quite clearly where Chopin’s inspiration comes from. In fact, if you did not know who wrote it, you might come up with Chopin. After all, he composed so many nocturnes that it is hard to remember them all, so nine times out of ten you could be correct. But Szymanowska was among the first virtuoso pianist-composers of the nineteenth century. She began touring the year Chopin was born. Her 100 compositions for piano, as well as a number of songs, made her name. She was well respected and well known at the time. That makes her disappearance from the repertoire of pianists all the more disturbing, because these pieces demand to be heard. I first came across her name when I reviewed a disc of her Ballades and Romances.
Likewise, I came upon the name of Zara Levina when reviewing her disc of piano concertos. Hers is a powerful and very individual voice, but if she is spoken of at all, it is as a pound-shop Rachmaninov. The Sonata No. 1 will blow that unkind comparison out of the water. Levina’s strength of expression blasts its way out of your speakers. Yes, there are shades of Rachmaninov, but that is due to the shared influences of their homeland, with the same core cultural references. Levina studied composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky and Rheinhold Glière. Pianist Alexander Melnikov is her grandson.
Grażyna Bacewicz is the best-known composer in this programme. Navona Record’s website says: “Her large body of work includes symphonies, concerti (seven for violin and orchestra), seven string quartets and numerous pieces for chamber ensemble and solo instruments.” The piano sonata, another very powerful work, can hold its own alongside any written in the mid-twentieth century. There are three contrasting movements. The Toccata, vivo finale is a relentlessly driving powerhouse that leaves you in awe of both the piece and the pianist, whose stamina is called upon in spades.
Another discovery of mine through reviewing is the Croatian countess and composer Dora Pejačević. Once again, the power on display in her second piano sonata is really impressive. It must have surprised audiences in 1921 when it was composed. Unsurprisingly, when she took a bow after her symphony in F sharp minor had had its first performance in Vienna, at least one music critic was incredulous that a woman stepped onto the stage. Such attitudes are unfortunately still alive though mercifully much less so than back then. The sonata, hugely enjoyable, is worth going back to many times, as more layers reveal themselves.
New to me is Bojana Petrovic Aleksova, a Macedonian composer whose Pieces for Piano are yet again strong, contrasting statements. They are carefully constructed and brilliantly delivered thanks to the artistry of the accomplished pianist Natasha Stojanovska, who is also a composer. Her phantasies, heavily imbued with Macedonian folk themes, make for highly satisfying listening. They bring to mind folk dancing, where there is much twirling with dresses held out by the dancer’s speed. Power and grace in equal measure, plus great tunes, result in a heady mix of Southern Eastern European ethnic influences that keep the interest from start to finish.
The disc cements Natasha Stojanovska’s position as a wonderfully talented pianist and composer. She handles with grace Maria Szymanowska’s nocturne, and in all other pieces her playing matches the power of the music. This is altogether a fascinating journey into the music of women whose music stands as proof that they can deliver in every respect and that their music is worthy of further study and exposure on disc. More please!