Escaping a belated blast of winter (typical of Boston’s schizophrenic spring weather), music patrons filled New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Friday night, April 15, in anticipation of a Celebrity Series of Boston recital by the preeminent Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomšic. Amusingly, a disembodied, and obviously not pre-recorded, voice got our evening started by welcoming us to Symphony Hall. Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, Monty Hall, Ryan Hall … all quite befuddling.
Tomšic, who has been performing for all but the first five of her seventy years, has given upwards of 4,000 recitals, a truly staggering number when you do a bit of back-of-the-envelope scribbling (an average of considerably more than a recital per week for well over half a century). At the urging of pianist Claudio Arrau, she emigrated to the United States at age twelve, matriculating at Juilliard and earning her Bachelor of Science and Diploma in Piano while still in her teens. Following her Carnegie Hall debut, legendary pianist Artur Rubinstein took her under his wing as his only protégé. Shortly after completing her studies, Tomšic returned to her native Ljubljana, where she still makes her home. Some thirty years would pass before her next visit to the States.
Looking resplendent in a shimmering floor-length outfit of gold, green, and black, Tomšic presented a physically and psychologically demanding program. Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, the “Tempest,” got things off to a dark and stormy start. Written during a tempestuous period in Ludwig’s life as he struggled with dispiriting hearing loss, chronic digestive discomfort (possibly associated with lead poisoning), and an unsuccessful affair of the heart, this is a piece that wears its emotions on its sleeve, as Beethoven segued from Classicism to Romanticism. Tomsic’s approach seemed to harken back to the Classical as she opted for refinement over raw emotion, restraint over fiery freneticism. This was especially apparent in the final Allegretto, which, with its relatively gentle opening and controlled tempo, was an unusually elegant rendition, where pathos and yearning replaced the usual anger and fist-shaking. As it happens, just six days prior, this reviewer was in this very venue, from a nearly identical vantage point, for a performance of the same piece by the young Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (review here). This made for an intriguing juxtaposition. Tsujii took a decidedly more romantic tack, featuring a great deal more percussive force and translating Beethoven’s notes into something much more emphatic. This is music on the cusp of two periods, with a wide range of potential interpretations. Beethoven’s not talking.
Similarly, LvB’s “Les adieux,” Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Opus 81a, also straddles two interpretive worlds. Its conception is seemingly emotionally charged, based as it is on the fleeing of one of Beethoven’s patrons and students, Archduke Rudolph, ahead of the invading French troops as they stormed Vienna, and the sobriquets Beethoven assigned to each movement (“Farewell,” “Absence,” and “Return”) are certainly ripe with feeling. Unlike most artists, however, Tomšic downplayed this inherent sentimentality, favoring nobility and polish. The Beethovenian plosives and fricatives of the first movement sounded surprisingly dignified; the giddiness of the final Vivacissimamente held in check. All told, she demonstrated the stately side of Herr Beethoven, something more readily apparent in his earlier works. Her playing was seemingly effortless, with her square-jawed and patrician countenance betraying little emotion and bordering on the dispassionate. There was little wasted motion as she generated a clear, bell-like tone with her powerful hands and wrists. Interestingly, she appeared to be looking almost straight ahead, as opposed to down at the keyboard, with a stoic, sometimes faraway expression.
The music of Frédéric Chopin oozes refinement and elegance. Though quintessentially Romantic, Chopin’s works are highly polished jewels, raw emotion having been burnished and channeled into shapely phrases and soaring melodic lines. Not surprisingly, Tomšic’s interpretations of his four Ballades (No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23; No. 2 in F Major, Opus 38; No. 3 in A-flat Major, Opus 47; No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52) generally seemed more appropriate than those of the Beethoven. These wide-ranging works, featuring disparate thematic elements, a massive dynamic range, and knuckle-busting virtuosic passages, were tossed off with disarming grace and aplomb. If anything, Tomšic made them seem almost too easy. One wished for a bit more emotional abandon at times. Ballade No. 1 was perhaps a tad too deliberate; No. 2 exuded depth, passion, and uncanny technical prowess; the jocularity of No. 3, analogous to the final movements of both Beethoven sonatas, was held somewhat at bay; No. 4 was hyper-elegant and lush, the jewel in the crown.
As we rose to our feet, cries of “Brrrava, Dubrrravka!” rang out. Our enthusiasm was generously rewarded with four encores: Liszt’s Valse oubliée No. 1, “Forgotten Waltz,” Chopin’s misnamed “Minute” Waltz; Liszt’s Étude de concert – “Gnomenreigen” (“Dance of the Gnomes”) and Liszt’s Étude de concert – “La Leggierezza.” For this pair of ears, these encores glittered and sparkled as brightly as Tomšic’s attire, as she seemed at last to let go and lose herself in the music. Her exquisite phrasing, nuanced interpretations, and a textural range from diaphanous to thunderous were all on display. Appeared as if she could have spun seamless melodies and knocked off crashing octave runs well into the night.
Dubravka Tomšic is indisputably one of the most accomplished pianists of her generation. Though highly successful and astoundingly prolific, her recognition in the West tends to be relegated to Classical music connoisseurs, possibly due to her long absence from North America prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Fortunately, in the past twenty years, she’s made numerous well received visits. To witness an artist of her caliber is a rare and thrilling treat. That said, this performance was not without flaws. Though generally rock-solid, her playing was definitely not note-perfect and included a couple of disarming, though well-camouflaged, memory slips. In addition, her reserve seemed to dampen the expressivity of the music at times. Having recently lost her husband, composer Alojz Srebotnjak, one wonders if that loss is still reverberating in her music making. All nit-picking and speculation aside, however, this was a fantastically impressive and stimulating concert. Tomšic plays with wisdom and depth, sounding, in the best sense, like a performer who has been making music of the highest quality since Truman was in office. Brrrava, Dubrrravka!
Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.