Croatian pianist Martina Filjak rounded out the Boston Conservatory’s Piano Master Series Tuesday at Seully Hall, with works by Haydn, Bach-Liszt, Liszt, and Schumann. The Haydn Sonata in G Minor Hob. XVI/44 (a two-movement work) was worlds apart from the Schumann, appropriately, and gave us a good glimpse of Filjak’s mastery of the (abbreviated) classical sonata. Delicate, almost muted in places, and graceful, it was full of flourishes and had a hypnotic rhythmic pulse. A hopping right hand over a lyrical left framed the first movement, with more flourishes and graces in the second. Throughout, Haydn was represented at his most Scarlatti-like, so this was a fine precursor to the Bach-Liszt (organ) Prelude and Fugue in A minor, S.543.
There Bach was more dominant than Liszt, at least through most of the piece, though it was plenty Romantic as well as mysterious-sounding. Filjak, with real economy of motion, projected a near trancelike state. The fugue built gradually, early octaves understated, but the work unfolded and grew big and determined. Really nicely structured. Liszt emerged but showed utmost respect for Bach, with Filjak showing deep respect for both.
Liszt’s reverence for legend concluded the first half, with the Two Legends, S.175, St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and St. Francis of Paola walking on the waves. Program music doesn’t get any more straightforward than. Apparently birds are good listeners even while chirping away, because there are loads of bird sounds throughout the First Legend, and Assisi must have had serious things to say, what with all the octaves and big chords.
Filjak’s program attributed the Second Legend to Assisi as well rather than Paolo. The story goes that Paolo was refused passage by a boatman while trying to cross the Strait of Messina. He threw his cloak on the water, tied one end to his staff as a sail, and glided across to Sicily, his companions following in the boat. Some also report he had burning coals in his other hand to light the way. Whether sailing or walking, no matter; he arrived first, no small feat given the size and number of waves he encounters. It sounded to me as though there might have been a small hurricane too.
Without knowing the legends—or recognizing that this stuff was the 1863 equivalent of Batman v Superman—listening to any performance of these dated works might incite some pulling out of hair. They’re just way too over the top, Liszt at his most relentlessly schlocky. Putting aside why anyone would want to master them, Filjak did them more than justice.
I was left longing for Schumann. Guess what?! We got it, in the form of Schumann’s Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11, the first of the two so-called “great” (thankfully not super-heroic) sonatas, itself full of longing, of Schumann for Clara. Filjak’s slow introduction to the first movement (which always sounds like an independent movement) was haunting, great piano writing made gorgeous and full of valiant sad resignation. The long Allegro vivace unfolds as a strange study in contrasting themes, the first built on a bouncy, offbeat galloping rhythmic motif. According to biographer Peter Ostwald:
Clara’s “Witches Dance,” a piece Schumann had first heard when he was twenty-two, marks the opening of the Allegro vivace and is immediately pursued by Schumann’s own “Fandango” written at that time. An intricate interweaving of these two themes characterizes the entire first movement.
Filjak showed great affinity for such composing, attentive to the many sudden mood and tempo shifts, from anger to brooding to near glee and back. Her slow movement Aria was a dreamy intentionally un-projected respite from the first movement. Her Scherzo was vicious, equally intentional, loud, big and projected, the jerky rhythmic melody almost hammered. Her Finale filled small Seully hall, with much of the playing uber-aggressively driven, but also a study in huge contrasts of volume, mood, tempo, and musical ideas. So many different musical ideas, in fact, that it’s tough to make the movement cohere.
The Sonata was “dedicated to Clara [Wieck] by Florestan and Eusebius,” figures that represented the turbulent (Florestan) and contemplative (Eusebius) sides of Schumann. The last movements (although this last movement was composed first) of his larger works are recognized as being dialogs between the two characters, or interruptions of Florestan by Eusebius. What might have been missing from Filjak’s playing of this movement was a unifying polarity between those two forces. Eusebius didn’t always get his contemplative due (some of the slower, sweeter musical ideas lacked breathing room, a little tenderness). Florestan it seemed was a bit of a bully. By audience reckoning (a standing ovation), I might be alone in my thinking.
Refinement and power were the watchwords on this fine evening.