Photo, Andrej Grilc

Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

Ivana Gavrić cuts an aristocratic presence, a refined, gracious pianist with a discerning repertory as much classico-romantic in breeding as accessibly contemporary. Her programming mirrors her personality and the individualised musical choices she wants to make. She’s adventurously varied in her chamber initiatives, for instance, yet quietly reserved about her Concerto choices. Three Mozarts (K271, K466, K488) and all the Beethovens feature on her website but neither Chopin (despite a mazurka-orientated collection for Edition Classics, released in 2017), Tchaikovsky nor (curiously) Bartók. Born to a musical family in Sarajevo – ancient metropolis of Ottoman, latterly Austro-Hungarian, history, the “Damascus of the North” – she moved to the UK in 1992, studying with James Gibb and Peter Bithell at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (Junior Department) before reading music at Cambridge (St Catharine’s) and completing her post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Music under Niel Immelman (whose own post-war London training had been steered by Cyril Smith, Ilona Kabos, Lamar Crowson and Maria Curcio).

Ivana’s Grieg, focus of the third of her Champs Hill CDs (2013), suggests, to generalise, a cross-over meeting of traditions and styles, bloodlines and schooling. On the one hand, extrovertly, it’s pianistically cool – disciplined ‘English’ crispness before risk-taking ‘Balkan’ bravura, clarified bass sonorities before sensual indulgence. On the other, reflectively, it’s generous of heart. Her chiselled ‘Notturno’ Opus 54/4 is fragile, an intimacy from afar, songs and nightingales entwined, a reverie suspended, going well with the mood and setting of Champs Hill’s art gallery/music room down in rural West Sussex. In something like the late ‘Halling from the Hills’, Slåtter, Opus 72/4, she finds echoes/precursors of Eastern-inflected Slavic colouring, underlining an evocative landscape of unexpected associations (if one not entirely unfamiliar, witness sketches for the abandoned 1883 B-minor Piano Concerto). Her ‘Goblin’s Bridal Procession’ Opus 72/14 is masterly Theatrically, she’s especially responsive to contrasting and balancing Grieg’s sectional constructions – cascading skies and weathers, emotions and incidents, presented with an expressively filmic eye. I prefer her recorded ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’, notably its climax-building and moderated central episode, to many accounts around, Andsnes’s included.

For someone like Gilels, Grieg, A-minor Concerto aside (a work he championed with stentorian grandeur – remember that 1979 Colin Davis Prom with the LSO?), was about reviving the Lyric Pieces (DG’s 1974 anthology). For Gould it was the early E-minor Sonata. Ivana bridges the two, the essentials of her CD framed by the G-minor Ballade Opus 24 and Sonata. The slow movement of the latter is a revealing case study, at just short of four minutes closer in tempo to de Larrocha (1970) than Ginzburg (1949) or Gould (1973) at nearer five and six respectively. Both Ginzburg (fantastical) and Gould find pensive beauty, notwithstanding Gould chancing the sands at low tide. Contrastingly, Ivana moves the music onwards, a richly voiced ‘live’ 2015 performance from Lucerne letting passions and tone soar rather more so than her studio version while emphasising similar orientalisms of ornamentation Her Norwegian folksong-inspired Ballade is an impressively formulated canvas (theme, fourteen variations, coda), poetry and nobility sailing hand in hand, story-telling and pianism flying high, the cortege of the Lento eighth variation hauntingly sculpted, at one with the style. Emphatically worth getting to know, it’s a score of substance needing to return to the regular repertory. Percy Grainger offered it at his 1901 London solo debut, at the old Steinway Hall, Lower Seymour Street.

Whether or not her recent Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall (May 28, Philharmonia Orchestra, Oliver Gooch) referenced Schirmer’s 1920 Grainger edition I couldn’t be sure. But taking the bottom A of the first ascending arpeggio sweep with the right-hand certainly impelled the music on its way, power and quality tone at a premium. In watchful accord with her conductor on issues of ensemble, this wasn’t flashy, sentimentalised Grieg. Typical of Ivana’s approach to large-scale schemes, it illumined the music’s architecture, the outer movements unfolding simply but strongly. Nothing complicated or contrived. If the opening subject of the first seemed marginally brisker than its Allegro molto moderato marking (crotchet 84), the slower contrasts nevertheless integrated naturally. Players of Matsuev’s casting may bring greater iron-clad punch and thespian attitude to the cadenza (his thunderous reading with Măcelaru and the Orchestre national de France at last year’s George Enescu Festival warrants attention – superior to the Lang Lang/Buniatishvili camp), but Ivana’s placement and sensitivity resourcefully invited us to consider a viable, less-hammered while still fff alternative. Her view of the D-flat Adagio’s first two solo entries offset the music in a wintery northern light, precisely articulated, slight of rubato or excessive nostalgia, the F-flat/E-major rejoinder poised in clarity and moulding, reminding that its dynamic sphere is piano rather than the faded (inconsistent) pianissimo it’s often perceived to be. “A waist in satin, like a flower,” ruminates Alexander Blok in one of his poems, “sits at the table by the window that is her own, exuding mists and secret fragrances”. The middle episode of the Finale conjured a willow pool at sunset, flute and piano in tryst. The bronzed peroration minutes later scaled a path to Asgard, noonday Mixolydian G’s and all. Liszt would have loved it.

Understated memento of a friendship from Cambridge days, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s 138-second Contemplation, drawing on bars 17-20 of the Grieg Sonata’s Andante, pertinently footnotes Ivana’s odyssey, signing off the 2013 album. A couple of years later I re-recorded the piece with her (it opens Cheryl’s Homages cycle), writing about the music’s (and, by inference, her) elusive way catching “the passage of dreams, the transience of apparition, the flow and caesura of feeling, fleeting, fleeing thoughts”.

Ivana Gavrić on the wing, musing in her own world and space, time and privacy on her side, neither studio nor red light within sight, takes you to Nirvana.