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Experience Counts

April 29, 2008

A wide burst of music from three centuries in Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic’s recital in Herbst Theatre engendered wide bursts of approval from her audience. With one exception, Saturday night’s full program, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, stood as a model of sincerity and technical proficiency. That, plus her elegant stage deportment, again demonstrated why she’s considered today’s grand dame of the piano world.
The program opened with Mozart’s somber Adagio in B Minor, K. 540, followed by four Scarlatti Sonatas: K. 159 in C Major, K. 11 in C Minor, K. 125 in G Major, and K. 29 in D Major. Prokofiev’s short Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28, came next. As a delightful surprise, she played the five Macedonian Dances (1975) by her husband, Alojz Srebotnjak.

The program's second half turned German, with four of Brahms’ late piano pieces — the Intermezzos Nos. 1, 2, and 6 from his Op. 118, and the final Rhapsody, Op. 119, No. 4, in E-flat major. Then came the blockbuster, a thunderously brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, the “Appassionata.”

We heard a variety of depths within Tomsic’s traversal of the centuries. Her Scarlatti was assertive enough, but delicate. The K. 159 work is one Scarlatti’s best-known single-movement sonatas, sometimes named the “Fanfare.” The more relaxed C Minor and the racing bravura of the D Major were effectively contrasted. In all four sonatas, Tomsic observed both sectional repeats.
Master Craftsman
Srebotnjak, who celebrated his 77th birthday the very next evening, is a versatile composer who trained in Ljubljana (Slovenia), Italy, Paris, and London. He’s written everything from commercial film scores to 12-tone works. I admire that, because a composer ought to be master of his craft, not a slave to one style.

His Bartók-like dances from Slavic Macedonia (as opposed to neighboring Greek Macedonia) represent a well-crafted and immediately enjoyable romp through the delights of the unusual rhythmic patterns common to southeastern Europe. Mostly, you hear patterns in fives and sevens rather than the usual threes and fours. Srebotnjak’s obvious command of piano writing is joined to a keen sense of formal clarity and fresh ideas. I look forward to hearing more of his music.

Prokofiev kept notebooks of musical scraps all his life. At age 23, he took a fancy to some of his teenage jottings and turned out two sonatas, each subtitled “From Old Notebooks.” They became his third and fourth sonatas. Pianists have long taken to the seven-minute Sonata No. 3 as a display piece of hammering and dashing. It serves that purpose, but aside from its bravura, the materials are unimpressive. Among Prokofiev’s piano music, that sonata’s definitely second- or third-drawer stuff. Still, Tomsic played it engagingly.
Miniature Brahms, Maximally Played
Tomsic saved some of her most beautiful phrasing and performance savvy for the four Brahms pieces. The first of the Op. 118 set, in A minor, offered a stormy study in Romantic angst, while No. 2 in A Major sang with Brahms’ richest autumnal colors. The pianist also gently highlighted the music’s contrapuntal elements. The second section of the A major, for instance, contains a canon in augmentation, with the second voice answering in a broader tempo than the first. Those details are so subtly embedded in the overall textures that I wonder how many people actually notice them.

The scorcher was the ghost-haunted Intermezzo No. 6 in E-flat Minor, all mystery and darkness, most of it suggesting a choral prelude on the Dies Irae plainchant. Brahms, who already showed signs of the cancer that felled him, wrote what amounts to a mini-Requiem in this piece, perhaps for himself.

To brighten the mood, Tomsic played the powerhouse, decidedly martial Rhapsody in E-flat, Brahms' final piano work and a rare instance of his march style. Tomsic took it on with all flags flying, horses prancing, and brass bands flashing. Yet it was the poignancy she drew from the first two intermezzos that will stick in my mind for the longest time.

I have always felt a bit ambivalent about the first movement of the “Appassionata,” with its hammered opening chords. But by golly, Tomsic changed my mind, mostly through inventive use of the pedals and her volcanic power of tone. To the opening of the finale, with its pounded, dissonant chords, she brought a sense of violent anger such as I have never before experienced. This was the high point of the evening, finally appreciating the full worth of a composition I’d previously considered a flawed masterpiece.

The one performance I did not like was the opening Mozart Adagio. Tomsic milked it with Romantic rubato and dynamic shifts, a bit in the manner one expects for Liszt. It lacked simplicity, an essential of all fine Mozart presentations. The audience demanded, not requested, encores. The pianist complied with Chopin’s popular Waltz No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, followed by the Waltz No. 13 in D-flat Major. Finally, she closed with the almost nocturnal Bach–Siloti Prelude in B Minor, arranged from Bach’s Little Clavier Book.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.