Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What becomes a legend most?

Perhaps some cults refuse you membership. At least that's all I can make of the devoted fans of Dubravka Tomšič (left), the legendary Slovenian pianist who played to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in last weekend's Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall; after one of the lengthiest and most varied programs I've heard in years (Mozart, Scarlatti, Prokofiev, Srebotnjak (her husband), Brahms, and then the Appassionata), their applause held her through four encores (more Scarlatti, Chopin, Villa-Lobos, and Bach). No one could say Tomšič was ungenerous; indeed, she was lavish, loading her program with both warhorses and rarities.

Yet why did it - and she - leave me a little cold? I was more than slightly surprised at my own reaction (or lack thereof) as Tomšič's legend precedes her - she was advised on her concert career at age 12 by Claudio Arrau, then became the "only protégé" of Artur Rubinstein (although she doesn't sound much like either one of them), and her renown rests on a reputation for sternly Apollonian musicianship. Certainly she has some kind of steel in her fingers; otherwise they never would have lasted through that program. But at least during Friday's concert, her "Olympian vision" only intermittently convinced; indeed, her seriousness occasionally seemed to congeal and turn a bit grim. Part of this was the crummy Steinway she was playing at Jordan Hall, which only yielded so much to her deliberate touch. But part of it was her approach: she drove the Appassionata through force of will, not passion, and her reading of Mozart's melancholy Adagio in B minor was oblique and almost clinical.

Tomšič was far more convincing at the Scarlatti, Prokofiev and Brahms - three composers whom it's hard, true, to construe as any kind of musical group. But her slightly heavy touch brought its own mysterious weight to four Scarlatti sonatas (with trills that glinted with their own rich brilliance), and her intellectual diffidence proved surprisingly appropriate (in different ways) to both the galloping Prokofiev Sonata No. 3 and the ruminative Brahms Intermezzi. The encores were likewise a mixed bag - another memorable Scarlatti, a Chopin Waltz in C# minor with eccentric rubato, and then fireworks with Villa-Lobos's "Le Polichinelle" and a Bach Prelude arranged by Siloti. Perhaps the pianist had finally warmed up; at last she broke into a few shy smiles before the audience's applause. And to be truthful, there were times during this musical marathon when I might have joined in the adulation.

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