The audience went wild; Chopin’s Ballades do that to people. Cheering broke out after Dubravka Tomsic played the second ballade, and by the fourth, which starts out quietly like a lullaby and builds up to an all-out, rhapsodic, virtuosic tour de force, the entire audience seemed smitten.
Dubravka Tomsic. Presented by the Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, April 15.
By Susan Miron
The Slovenian pianist, Dubravka Tomsic, has become, as her program notes declare, “something of a cult status among pianophiles.” The Boston Globe‘s longtime, former music critic Richard Dyer had lavishly sung her praises, as had many who had heard her live and in her many recordings.
Yet this pianophile had never seen or heard her, so when Ms. Tomsic appeared in Jordan Hall on the Celebrity Series Friday night—which has track record for showcasing excellent pianists—I thought I’d go hear what the big fuss was all about.
The only protégé of pianist Artur Rubinstein, Ms. Tomsic has a staggering resumé, having performed over 4,000 concerts on five continents, and having made 80 recordings released since 1987. Her biography seems split in two, the second half beginning with a wildly successful appearance at the Newport Music Festival (RI) in 1989 after 30 years spent teaching, raising a family, and building up a reputation mostly in Southeastern Europe.
Born in Dubronik, Yugoslavia, she was a young, gifted pianist who caught the attention of the great Claudio Arrau. She studied at Julliard and soon made her N.Y. Philharmonic debut in 1955 (when she was 15) and played a Carnegie Hall recital that attracted the attention of the renowned pianist Rubinstein, who coached her for two years until she returned to Yugoslavia to take care of her ailing father. (Rubinstein also wrote glowingly about her in his memoirs). By the time she played in Newport, she had been away from the United States as a performer for 30 years. Few musicians get to jump start a career here after such a long absence.
Many of the classical performances I’ve heard in Jordan Hall recently were half-full, but Ms. Tomsic’s concert was packed. It was a meat and potatoes program—two Beethoven sonatas and all four Chopin Ballades, music pianophiles know well, especially after last year’s Chopin-a-thon.
The program opened with Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, No. 17 in D minor, Opus 31, no. 2, composed in 1802, the beginning of a five-year period of extraordinary productivity for the composer. For whatever reason, she seemed not to be at her best until the third (and last) movement, when she came to life, playing with great drama and technical finesse. Suddenly it was clear that here was a someone who could really play. Her outfit did not seem to match the seriousness of her mood and demeanor—a black dress under a striking tunic with a pattern of black diamonds framed by lines of orange, green, and gold that shimmered as she played.
Her no-nonsense, don’t-bother-me-about-charisma approach to the stage and the music started to work for her by the second sonata, “Les Adiex,” which she played with great command, abetted by a brilliant technique that ranged from her fingers to her pedals. This was very disciplined playing, but it didn’t really move me. By the sonata’s third movement, Ms. Tomsic really let loose with gorgeous sound and thrilling virtuosic flair, so one could listen to the music and forget about how—or by whom—it was being made.
Until the encores, I did not find Ms. Tomsic to be a particularly lyrical pianist. She is not one to move around or make facial expressions while playing; she is the anti-Lang Lang. But when she is good, she is very good. And at her best, she is deeply impressive.
Chopin, as the program notes explain, “seems to be the first composer to apply the title to a piece of abstract instrumental music, apparently indicating that his four Ballades “hint at a dramatic flow of emotions” uncontainable by traditional Classical forms. Chopin’s harmonic and melodic gifts were extraordinary, and his Ballades, one of his most beloved groups of pieces, were not necessarily meant to be played as a set.
Written between 1831 and 1842, they are individually great but perhaps the Fourth in F Major with its pathos and drama is the greatest. Ballade No. 2 in F minor, Opus 38, written when Chopin was in Majorca with George Sand, was dedicated to Schumann who quickly—and correctly—pronounced Chopin a genius.
Schumann dedicated his “Kreisleriana” of 1838 to Chopin in appreciation. Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Opus 46, was another masterpiece composed when Chopin was with with George Sand, this time in Paris (1840–1841), as is the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52, during which Chopin was staying with Sand at her country villa. She and Delacroix, their house guest, were the first audience for this Ballade, which exhibits Chopin at the height of his powers (considerably amazing even when not at their height).
The audience went wild; Chopin’s Ballades do that to people. Cheering broke out after the second ballade, and by the fourth, which starts out quietly like a lullaby, and builds up to an all-out, rhapsodic, virtuosic tour de force, the whole audience seemed smitten. (For me, it’s all but impossible to resist the startling beauty of these pieces no matter who is playing them). After several curtain calls, Ms. Tomsic obliged and played the encores she has played on other legs of her tour but without announcing the compositions.
The third was Chopin’s lovely Minute Waltz, which she showed, as if any further proof were needed, that she had technique to burn. Listen to her play a Scarlatti sonata on You Tube to hear what great chops sound like.
The other three encores—appropriately in this Liszt year—were probably known to pianists, but not to a general audience. They were Listz’s “Valse oubliée,” Concert Etude “Gnomenreigen” and Concert Etude “La Liggierezza,” all ravishingly played.
I almost felt like I was hearing a different pianist than the one who had played Beethoven before intermission. This was the Tomsic that inspired the Cult. Her Liszt, all virtuoso showpieces, were breathtakingly beautiful; the sweep of the music caught your attention—not just the impressive technique. All year long I have been falling for Lizst’s piano music, and Tomsic’s Liszt deepened my love for the music. It was sheer perfection.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.