© 2020 Luminum Productions

Graham Rickson / The Arts Desk

Olga Stezhko writes in her extended sleeve note of wanting “to look beyond the multifaceted beauty of Debussy’s piano pieces and bring out the edge and ambiguity…” There's the danger that this repertoire can be treated as sophisticated chillout music, with production values to match. One thing I really like about this anthology is the recorded sound. Close and on the dry side, it lets us hear everything; this Debussy looks forward far more than back. Try Stezhko’s thrilling account of the little “Mouvement” from Book 1 of Images. It's sharp, witty and pungent, anticipating Bartók's percussive dynamism. The six short movements which make up Children’s Corner also scrub up brilliantly: you can make sense of the flurries of notes which open “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum”, and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” really bounces, at times suggesting Gershwin. Even overplayed numbers like “Clair de lune” gleam as if freshly polished. It's difficult not to grin. Debussy doesn’t often sound this youthful, this extrovert.

 

Stezhko can do subtlety too; “Cloches à travers les feuilles” is brilliantly controlled, and the aqueous burblings of “Poissons d’or” are startlingly vivid. The disc concludes with the late Six épigraphes antiques, which Stezhko discovered shortly after recording the earlier works. Each piece was inspired by one of the Songs of Bilitis, a collection of Ancient Greek poems rediscovered and translated into French in 1894. Though Bilitis never existed: she was a literary hoax dreamed up by one Pierre Louÿs. No matter. Stezhko's enthusiasm shines through: “Pour remercier la pluie du matin” sounds as if it's being composed on the spot, and her cheeky translation of “Pour que a nuit soit propice” made me giggle. The album was launched late last year with an accompanying beer, which “fuses French and Indonesian flavours echoing the sounds of Gamelan music…”. Listening to the disc while drinking the stuff proved to be a multisensory experience to savour. An outstanding Debussy collection with a generous running time.

Guy Rickards / International Piano/ ****

In her 2014 debut recording, Eta Carinae Belarussian-born, London-resident Olga Stezhko provided very personal interpretations of a selection of late works by Busoni and Scriabin. In her long-awaited successor, she has turned to Debussy, marking the centenary of his death last year. It was originally planned to run to just over an hour, with Children’s Corner and Suite bergamasque) framed by the two books of Images . Having set these down in Palermo in June 2017, Stezhko then fell in love with the solo piano version of 6 Épigraphes antiques, recording them in London ten months later. More often performed in their initial four-hand version, these wonderful miniatures are given a subtle, fluent performance catching their delicious, at times severe, restraint beautifully.

 

Stezhko’s live performances of Images have garnered much critical praise. In the first book, Stezhko’s swift tempi outpace Thibaudet (Decca), for example, but she is equally evocative in Reflets dans l’eau and the concluding Mouvement rattles along with winning verve. In the second book, Stezhko holds her own, even in Poissons d’or and Palermo Classica’s greater immediacy of sound emphasises the clean precision and fluency of her playing.

 

The recorded sound may well be the clinching factor for many, Antonio Zarcone having miked Stezhko very closely in Palermo (replicated in London by Pasha Mansurov for Épigraphes antiques). Compared to the dreamy acoustics enjoyed by Thibaudet and Angela Hewitt (Hyperion), in Children’s Corner and the Suite bergamasque, that closer sound—almost as if one were sat looking over Stezhko’s shoulder—provides a more intimate feeling. Stezhko’s involving interpretations are decidedly those of a young player and she communicates that excitement of discovery throughout.

Stewart Collins / Classical Source / Wigmore Hall

"Something special happened here at the Wigmore Hall. The elegant Belorussian pianist Olga Stezhko slipped onto the platform almost unnoticed, such was her lack of ceremony, and that same attractively quicksilver and elusive music-making typified what followed.Her intelligent and personal programme-note explained the whys and wherefores of a quick-fire series of works almost exclusively from the early part of the 20th-century, from composers who were principally Russian but peppered and contrasted with the work of Debussy. The pieces were predominantly miniatures, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys rushed by with some sections just a few bars long. But the exquisite journey we were taken on gave Stezhko the maximum opportunity to demonstrate her wonderful powers of characterisation as well as an extraordinary will-o’-the-wisp delicacy in much that she played.With much that may have been unfamiliar territory, there was a particular joy in Lev Abeliovich’s Tarantella (1984), which combines elements of perpetual motion with wildness, a similar angular joy so typical of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.Stezhko’s more muscular side came to the fore with the various Scriabin elements, all late works and ending with the massive build in intensity that typifies Vers la flamme. The enthusiastic audience left to the echo of Stezhko’s return to Debussy (‘Serenade for the Doll’ from Children’s Corner) before she disappeared from view having been an extraordinary presence and a supremely delicate master of her instrument.”

Robert Beale / Manchester Classical Music /  Bridgewater Hall

The Mid-day Concerts welcomed Belarus-born Olga Stezhko for a 40-minute recital of French piano music from the first third of the 20th century. She’s made that her speciality, and her sense of atmosphere and delicacy in Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc are an asset to the music in each case. She achieves most when she’s playing gently: every note has its weight and value precisely expressed, there are telling gaps in the sound tapestry as she weaves it, and even when she turns up the power there can be a kind of nostalgia in her playing – humour, too.

Her programme began with Book 2 of Debussy’s Images. ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ created a light wash of tone, with clear highlights but still a sense of shape and direction; ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ saw a fuller sound emerge, but that, likewise, vanished magically in a fade-away ending; and ‘Poissons d’or’ was dazzling and subtle at the same time.

Poulenc’s Trois Pièces pour Piano were a serendipity: ‘Pastorale’ almost similar to the Debussy in its mystery and esoteric harmonic effects, while in ‘Hymne’ she evoked a finely controlled sense of the unexpected. The final ‘Toccata’, by contrast, was an invigorating – and still controlled – workout.

She played nos. 2, 4 and 5 of Ravel’s Miroirs in a way that, for all its beauties, was bewitching. The birds of ‘Oiseaux tristes’ were definitely sad, ‘Alborado del gracioso’ was springy, fun and yet with a touch of longing, and ‘La vallée des cloches’ had a series of deep sighs in its phrasing.

It was an individual, technically accomplished and seriously felt response to music in which harmonic colour and impressionistic mood-painting count more than anything.

Bryce Morrison / Gramophone Magazine

What to choose for your debut album? Do you play music that is, quite simply, close to your heart, or do you come up with something novel and arresting? For Belarus-born Olga Stezhko there is no problem. She clearly has the best of both worlds, making a masterly conjunction of late Scriabin and Busoni, two of music’s truest originals. And in her assertive and compulsively readable notes, she has few hesitations. For her ‘every composition on this CD is a masterpiece’, and she advises us to listen to the whole in order to comprehend fully ‘an evocative narrative on your senses and imagination'. Again, late Scriabin is ‘simultaneously dark and enlightening, aloof and immediate – a transformation of human reason’. She has similar praise for Busoni, who continues Scriabin’s compulsive world though in a style entire his own.

 

All this is complemented by Stezhko, who is blessed with an awe-inspiring command of both idioms and total empathy for two dreamers in strange worlds. Instructions such as etrange, ailee, soufflé mysterieux and onde caressant are hardly eccentric to Stezhko but show a reaching-out into starry new territory rather than leading down an obscure garden path. She takes Busoni’s Toccata by storm (for Alfred Brendel, ‘probably technically the most difficult piece that I have ever tried’) and her way with the Scriabin Preludes is entirely authentic. Not a record for the faint-hearted but rather for those who enjoy dark and menacing regions of the mind. This is an outstanding debut, finely recorded by Luminum Records.

Edward Clark / Musical Opinion / Wigmore Hall

“The playing was assured and spirited. In Debussy’s Images, Books I and II, Ms Stezhko produced a full range of colours and moods so carefully contained in the music.


Scriabin’s Five Preludes Op. 74 and Vers la flamme Op. 72 were among the last works he composed ... it was here that Ms Stezhko showed her full mature mastery. This was a recital where her delicacy and power were equal bedfellows... enthralling artistry.”

Tim Parry, BBC Music Magazine

“Olga Stezhko makes a strong impression with this imaginative programme of little-played Scriabin and Busoni. 

In late Scriabin, Stezhko is excellent at weaving the music’s spell from its unique combination of rhythmic complexity, harmonic daring and evaporating sonorities.

Stezhko admirably meets the demands of the two Busoni pieces, whether the dark Second Sonatina or the fearsome Toccata… this is a promising talent.”

The Independent / ​****

For her debut, the gifted Belarusian pianist Olga Stezhko has created a programme of pieces by Scriabin and Busoni, early 20th-century maverick innovators whose impact was too personal to prompt widespread emulation. The title, a reference to a distant double-star system, reflects her fascination with astrophysics, whose workings she allegorises in Scriabin’s works. And it’s possible to hear, in the purposive wandering of his “Two Dances” and the variegation of his “Five Preludes”, a sort of palimpsest of cosmic potential. Busoni’s eschewal of the standard key and time-signature prescriptions of the well-tempered system mean that his “Sonatina Seconda” and “Toccata” are subject to sudden shifts of tempo, direction and mood, but both eventually settle into more constant shape.