Zagreb’s most famous young pianist, Martina Filjak, made her Boston recital debut at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a dramatic manner on Easter Sunday. Her previous Boston appearances as concerto soloist with the Boston Philharmonic and as recitalist at a private concert had hardly prepared this reviewer for the impact she made. Her confident entrance in a fashionable blue gown told only a small part of the story of the day. Earlier, she had employed herself as a piano mover in an attempt to find a sweet spot for the Gardner’s German Steinway. This she seems to have done; the piano was on a diagonal axis to the square room, but turned 90 degrees from where I had observed it in previous events. The result, at least where I was sitting on the floor near the piano’s tail, coupled the instrument to the floor and reinforced the bass markedly. It was toe-tingling.
In her opener, Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B-flat Major K. 333, Filjak produced a lapidary tone. Her use of pedaling was particularly remarkable. She was very judicious in applying the damper pedal, instead employing a finger legato, which together with her lovely rubato gave a romantic and modern pianistic interpretation. Filjack was even more restrained in her use of the una corda pedal, later telling this reviewer that she strongly felt that pianissimos should be achieved through touch alone, and that the una corda should be used only for coloristic effects. And her pianissimos were ravishing indeed. Credit should also go to the preparation by the Gardner’s piano technician, Anthony McKenna. His voicing rendered the hammers soft on the surface but powerful underneath, and Filjak exploited the resulting dynamic range achieved through his mastery.
The andante second movement of the Mozart was replete with many wistful hesitations. Its surprising harmonic shifts seemed inevitable. The allegretto grazioso third movement was about variety of touch. She evoked Glenn Gould, though without his mannerisms, in her varied palette of note connectedness: from legato to portato, through her self-described “separato” to staccato. Whenever a repeat came it was well differentiated.
Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 (1853) is, within the form, second only to Grieg’s in length and was composed in the same year as Liszt’s famous B-flat Sonata, which, though twice as long, is also no less repetitive and discursive than Ballade No. 2. Filjak managed to vary the chordal weightings of the harmonization in original ways to give the piece more apparent variety than it possesses on paper, and she delivered the Tristan quote with sly wit. The performance was quite a journey.
Troubles began after intermission, but they were not Filjak’s. She showed sovereign command and concentration in situations wherein lesser performers would have crumbled. Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien began with dramatic theatrical flourish, though it was marred for about 10 seconds by the shrieking of a building alarm. Filjak continued with the allegro first movement in a surging, impetuous manner, taking pleasure in her own velocity as well as in Schumann’s characteristic mood swings, which even encompass a bit of La Marseillaise. She also managed to employ a quite different tone than she had in the Mozart — the Steinway became a Viennese fortepiano. After the long first movement concluded, the audience erupted in applause. It seems that since the Gardner program had neglected to list the five movements of the Schumann, many in the audience thought the piece was over after the first one.
Then the situation got seriously confusing. After Filjack completed the remaining four movements of the Schumann in her strong and stylish manner, the audience applauded ecstatically but then made for the exits, many apparently believing that the subsequent four movements had constituted the Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 that was slated to follow, and therefore, that the program had concluded. So much for Music Appreciation 101! Scott Nickrenz, the Gardner’s music director, charmingly corralled the wayward in the crowd, and the actual Prokofiev began.
Filjack opened propulsively, painting vigorous yet pointillist images of Czarist armies. Her playing was variously muscular and consoling, and she clearly understood Prokofiev’s cynicism. Then the alarm returned with a vengeance, wailing continuously through the last two minutes of the first movement. Nickrenz again stood and apologized to the audience and to Filjak, offering to excuse her from the rest of the show. She continued even though the marvelous atmosphere she had created had somewhat evaporated by then. In the three remaining movements, Filjack brought more brilliant tone painting to bear. She left us with unforgettable images of pealing bells in mountain valleys, anticipations of Lieutenant Kijé and mayhaps some foreshadowing of the Soviet Gulag.