Oxana Yablonskaya

By Scott MacClelland

I DON’T REMEMBER the last time I heard a solo piano recital so dominated by artistic authority as Oxana Yablonskaya’s performance for Distinguished Artists in Santa Cruz on Sunday afternoon. To be clear, I’m referring to artistry over and above technique, personality atop a program that itself came with no unfamiliar music or surprising ‘innovations.’

When Yablonskaya first ‘escaped’ the restrictive Soviet Union to find freedom in the US in the late 1970s, Joan DeVisser, a force behind the scene at the Monterey Symphony, scooped her up immediately. After a long and successful career in this country, including a faculty position at the Juilliard School, Yablonskaya made a triumphant return to the Monterey Bay with Gluck, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Liszt at Peace United Church.

Her performance of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata in D Minor, an early masterpiece, gave every ambitious student in attendance an object lesson that transcended all the technical demands, many very difficult, to a much higher realm. Yablonskaya displayed a greater grasp of the big picture than most pianists I have heard in recent years and plumbed greater depths of expression in the close-up details. For example, in the first movement there are stretches of quiet circumspection. In them, Yablonskaya slowed the pace and used a heavy sustaining pedal that opened a window onto a whole different character of music than I have ever heard in this piece. (Olga Kern, who played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata in Carmel in October, and of whom I count myself a fan, could do well to seek studies with Yablonskaya.) Some might question such a heavy use of sustain, but the artist stopped time and everybody knew it.

The program opened with another time-stopping moment, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” aka Melodie, from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, in a piano transcription by Giovanni Sgambati. Phrasing and weight of touch combined with a subtle circumspection of expression that drew remarkable tone and sonority from the Yamaha CFX concert grand.

Yablonskaya, like some of the all-time great interpreters, liked to approach the beginnings of the pieces she played with unexpected dynamics and phrasing, all the better. But she subjected the first of two Brahms Rhapsodies (Op 79) to a bruising opening salvo. This served to underscore the density of Brahms’ piano textures, in this case not particularly flattering. But, of course, Brahms doesn’t stay in that for long, and Yablonskaya’s survey revealed much more color, if not so much sympathy.

That all turned around with assorted nocturnes and mazurkas by Chopin, where subtlety now turned improvisational. (She included that most mysterious of all Chopin mazurkas, in A Minor, Op 17, No 4, and the boisterous B-flat, Op 7, No 1.)

Franz Liszt transcribed at least 12 hours’ worth of Schubert songs, including “Auf dem Wasser zu singer” and “Gretchen am Spinnrade” included here. Schubert would have been shocked at all the hyperpianism Liszt piled on top of these masterpieces. But if you want exaggerated pianism that calls attention to itself, Liszt is your man of choice, and in that case, Yablonskaya is the woman for the job.

This concert was one for the books and will resound in the mind’s ear for years to come.