|Dubravka Tomsic at rest.|
Dubravka Tomsic isn't merely a pianist anymore; at 70, she's one of the last torchbearers of a certain kind of disciplined romantic musicianship. She was hailed as a child by Claudio Arrau, and achieved renown as Artur Rubinstein's protégée; with a pedigree like that, no wonder she seems to bear the weight of musical history on her shoulders.
That burden - along with, perhaps, recent personal woes (she lost her husband just months ago) - seemed to bear down on the pianist a bit heavily during her Celebrity Series concert last weekend. The program was punishing: two demanding Beethoven sonatas ("The Tempest" and the more familiar "Les adieux"), then all four of Chopin's ballades, which in some passages leave Beethoven in the dust for sheer technical difficulty.
And at first, Tomsic, clad in a dazzling but severe jacket and gown, seemed slightly distant and rigid; her touch was from the start superbly subtle, but "The Tempest" (No. 17) was soon marred by odd hesitancies and wrong notes. The piece began to open up, however, as the pianist seemingly warmed up; it never rose to the kind of emotional power its sobriquet implies, but it became apparent that Tomsic had something other than the standard interpretation in mind - and she gave the sonata's dancing third movement a convincing core of sadness that was haunting in its restraint. "Les adieux" sounded even better - elegant, complex, and exquisitely balanced between the romantic and the classic. The crowd left the hall for intermission in a happy, thoughtful buzz.
After a longish break, however, Tomsic's earlier troubles seemed to return as she began the Chopin ballades. These are all unstructured, yet somehow cohesive, essays in heroism and melancholy; composed during Chopin's long affair with George Sand, they brim both with a sense of profound romance and an atmosphere of defeat and dismay; they're like grand odes to the failure of the whole bohemian project, both personal and political. That particular tension is also near ground zero of Tomsic's stylistic locus, and indeed the ballades were concert staples of her mentor, Rubinstein (himself a Pole, like Chopin; Tomsic is Slovenian).
No. 1, in G minor, and No. 4, in F minor, are the greatest of the four; the first is a grand call to arms that fails; the last is a kind of heartbroken reverie of resignation and frustration. Tomsic's interpretative decisions were sure in both - as well as throughout the cycle, actually - but she seemed to be battling weariness; again missed notes were noticeable, and the most dazzling runs (which in the ballades connect the blocks of thematic material like glittering ribbons) were slightly trimmed. There were nevertheless moments of deep feeling and glowing beauty throughout; the ballades were there, if in the rough; still, it was hard to feel as Tomsic rose from the keyboard at the end of No. 4 that we'd just heard one of her great performances.
But then something very unusual and deeply poignant happened. The crowd (which filled Jordan Hall) was wildly appreciative; they didn't seem to care a whit about the missed notes; they were her following, so it didn't matter if they'd seen her on an off night. Then a young girl dashed to the stage to hesitantly present Tomsic with a huge bouquet; and as this demonstration of affection sank into her, something in the great pianist seemed to melt before our eyes. She returned refreshed to the keyboard and whipped out four encores, three by Liszt and one by Chopin (the famous, if mis-named, "Minute" Waltz). These pieces, all études and waltzes, were as intricate and demanding as the ballades had been, but they were also quicker, lighter - showers of pure buoyant technique, and Tomsic seemed to grow stronger and stronger as she tossed off each one. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a U-turn in mood and technical attack in the course of a single concert. As she finally left the hall, Tomsic was at last beaming, and so was I.