Piano recital by Ana Bursac, 11 February 2021
Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 11
Online from the synagogue of Novi Sad, Serbia
Robert Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 11, written between 1833 and 1835, embraces a world of emotion. An iconic example of German Romanticism, this work is on a monumental scale comparable, though for different forces, to that other towering composition also numbered One, the First Symphony of Johannes Brahms. And it presents immense and formidable challenges to the pianist both emotionally and technically.
The traditional form of the sonata is here expanded by Schumann in order to express a particularly personal message, and although we should not be constrained by any search for a ‘programme’, the urgency and heartfelt pleading that alternate with dramatic, feverish restlessness convey vividly the passion felt by the young composer in his early twenties for his beloved Clara Wieck, notwithstanding her father’s determined and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to keep them apart.
It therefore takes a musician of exceptional depth and maturity to bring off a live performance, even more so when the Covid-19 pandemic requires it to take place remotely. The Serbian pianist Ana Bursac is clearly such a pianist. Her compelling performance yesterday in Serbia was given as part of the Recital Series at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, to an online audience in several countries. Undeterred, she brought immediate, dramatic intensity to the opening adagio, with its suggestion of poignant despair, followed by the sudden urgency with which she plunged into the ensuing Allegro vivace. Bursac brought a relentlessly rhythmic drive to the anguished, repeated short-short-long motif, at the same time sensitively conducting the pleading dialogue between right and left hands. Here was a pianist absolutely at home in Schumann’s emotional world, an impression confirmed as the final, slower melody sang out over the chromaticism below.
The audience was therefore well prepared for the captivating, lush tone and velvet phrasing that characterised Bersac’s playing of the second movement. The oxymoronic description ‘Senza passione, ma espressivo’ must present a challenge to every interpreter, yet here was the perfect response. It was almost as if Schumann, across the ages, had had such a pianist in mind, since the movement, based on an earlier song of his, was presciently dedicated “To Anna”.
The Scherzo that followed simply exploded into life, the cross-rhythms and harmonic progressions brought out with intuitive flair and yet gracious poise. Schumann poses yet another teaser in his description of the Intermezzo into which it merges: Lento. Alla burla ma non pomposo. There seemed to be just the right impishness contrasting with the fragmentary slower sections to avoid any notion of pomposity.
And so to the finale, with its fugato theme of weighty power dissolving into graceful lyricism, almost like a chorale, a prayer imbued by Bursac with an undercurrent of nervous anxiety. This was playing that exploited the full dynamic range of the piano in the final moments, as she controlled so well the approach to the climax. Even now, there were surprises in store, as delicate dancing and cheeky melodic syncopation whisked us through romantic sequences with feverish intensity to the sonata’s majestic conclusion.
This splendid online recital came from the great synagogue in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city and the European Capital of Culture for 2021. The setting could not have been more appropriate for a performance of one of the German composer’s major works for piano, by a young Serbian artist who surely has a glittering future ahead, hosted by the Music Society of an Oxford University College in the UK. The name of Ana Bursac will be one to watch out for.
John Dunston, Director of Music, Harris Manchester College