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New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/14/2009 -  
Maurice Ravel: Une barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean) (from Miroirs)
Luciano Berio: Wasserklavier, Feuerklavier, Luftklavier (Water-piano, Fire-piano, Air-piano), from Six Encores for Piano)
Berla Bartók: Szabadban (Out of Doors), Sz.81
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in B-flat major, Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”)

Martina Filjak (Piano)

M. Filjak (© Roger Mastroianni)

Never having heard of the Cleveland International Piano Competition before, I had obviously been missing something huge. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a questionable headline a few years ago, “Changes Put Cleveland Contest On Top Of World, At least Momentarily” .The official program notes were not so categorical. “The Competition,” somebody wrote, “presents a first prize of $50,000–the largest cash award awarded by any international piano competition.” (Italics mine.) Well, nobody sneers at money, but perhaps a certain taciturnity is called for.

The Croatian pianist Martina Filjak, who was already in great demand around Europe, won that First Prize this year, and she evidently deserved the pot of gold, as well as her debut recital in Zankel Hall last night to a reasonably full audience.

The program, though, was somewhat lopsided. The first half was 20th Century Light, while the second half had the single heaviest sonata of the 19th Century.

Yes, the pieces by Bartók, Berio and Ravel were incredibly difficult technically, and Ms. Filjak performed admirably. Yet one was left wondering where the substance was. I believe the pianist could have taken on Maurice Ravel’s complete Miroirs and made a good show. Instead, she started with the single movement “A Boat On The Ocean”. and it was a masterly rendition. The rhythm changes were subtle, the endless arpeggios swept by, and she controlled the sound intensities with utmost control. A truly beguiling beginning.

Berio’s six Encore Pieces have a similarity (all deal with the Elements, none have anything approaching a theme), but three in a row has that sameness. Not even Ms. Filjak, her fingers constantly in motion, could avoid that. One “Water-Piano” is so sensitive in itself, it really shouldn’t be near anything else.

The final work was the complete (whew!) Bartók Out of Doors which was all too short. Lots of drums (and one lone “pipe” in the opening movement. A barcarolle rolled softly, and the trills of “Musettes” showed her skill. The challenge is “Night Music”. It was fine playing, but I heard no frogs or crickets, the distant melodies were all too close. Yet in the final “Chase”, she certainly pounded out the octaves and punched out those wonderful Bartók discords with all the right enthusiasm.

Onto the second half, and perhaps pianists should be banned from playing the “Hammerklavier” without certain requirements. They should have been professionals for at least a decade, they should have performed all the other Beethoven sonatas (and some Schumann and Brahms as well), and they should have passed some kind of psychological test (to be devised later).

At any rate, after her richly embossed bagatelles in the first half, Ms. Filjak changed her dress (from bejeweled dusky gray to fire-hot red), changed her mood (from playful 20th Century to leonine early 19th Century) and pounded out a mighty opening chord for the Beethoven.

After that, her fingers did the tone-painting, and they were terrifically effective fingers. In fact, one concentrated on Ms. Filjak’s fingers and arms, praying and hoping–as one does for an Olympian gymnast–that no errors will be made. In that sense, she won a Gold Medal. In another sense, it was a losing cause. The tempo was rightly slow, but it lurched onto that grand climax rather than measurably drawing it to a close. Such a wealth of material is here, but Ms. Filjak concentrated on getting it “right”, which she did.

Nor did she fail digitally in the Presto movement. The rhythm of the left hand was sharp, the hectic runs up and down the scale were almost manic. The problem, of course, is that Beethoven was not manic. No outer mayhem can replace inner vehemence.

That last movement is Beethoven’s declaration of war–for he surrenders no territory in taxing technique and feeling. Ms. Filjak started well, fell into a mechanical meandering for the faster sections, but in the last fugues, not only was sharp, but her finger control was so pointed that the work ended with something approaching grandeur.

It is obvious that Ms. Filjak has a splendid future. At this point, she has the technique to make relatively minor music seem major. For the masterworks, I would love to hear her in five or ten years, when her outer skills coalesce with her inner feelings.

Martina Filjak’s Website

Harry Rolnick



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