This recital was a long time in the making, but more than justified the patience of all who were fortunate enough to have heard it.
Harris Manchester College had first invited Ana Bursac to perform at its Thursday lunchtime recital series two years ago, but the pandemic intervened. Undaunted, she then gave the inaugural recital of the college’s online series in February 2021, playing Schumann’s monumental Sonata No. 1 Op. 11 from a synagogue in Novi Sad, in her native Serbia.
Finally, she made it to Oxford in person for an exceptional recital which began with the majestic Prelude and Fugue in G minor from Book Two by J S Bach. This was, so to speak, the chronological overture to Bursac’s ambitious foray into the worlds of Schubert, Liszt and Chopin: expectations were set high from the outset – and exceeded.
Schubert’s set of four Impromptus Op. 142 was published posthumously in 1839. We heard the third and fourth. From the very first notes, one sensed Bursac’s affinity with Schubert, the poise and delicacy of her playing conveying with almost tangible affection the dialogue of the B flat theme which was to be followed by five contrasting variations. Effortlessly and convincingly moving from the richness of the first, through the sparkling, dance-like second, to the rather mock tragedy of the third, she transfixed us with the grandeur of the fourth, before illustrating the very genius of Schubert in the triplet scale runs which exuded pure joy and innocence. The other Impromptu sounded like a playful perpetuum mobile, as Bursac positively revelled in the bouncing hemiolas of the main theme, the brilliant scale passages and the characteristically unexpected key changes. Pure delight.
Bursac proved equal to the considerable technical demands of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 7, Eroica, giving her performance a commanding sense of direction, and using the imposing bass of the Steinway to powerful effect in supporting the work’s endlessly inventive chromaticism. The climax was nothing short of exultant.
The recital came to its own climax with two colossal works by Chopin. Bursac appeared to make light work of the technical challenges of the Etude in A minor Op. 25 No.4, with its polka-like character at the start. Her lightness of touch and dexterity belied the demands of the left hand with its wide stretches and jaunty rhythm, while the upper parts combined simultaneously singing legato and springy staccato with energy and verve.
Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, composed in 1841 in France, again combines song and dance, growing out of the opening dolce passage into a mesmerising, dramatic dialogue. Choosing exactly the right tempo is vital, and Bursac instinctively hit upon it, judging each change of mood perfectly. The furious broken octaves, the chromatic evolution, the breathless runs, fearsome trills and colossal spans – all this could lead to a performance more impressive than enjoyable, but not in the hands of Bursac, who even found time to inject a welcome touch of humour in the central gallop. Sensitive pedalling ensured clarity throughout. Towards the end came moments redolent of Liszt’s La Campanella, the G sharp of its “little bell” becoming, here, an effervescent A flat, as she leaped over the keyboard, taking every technical difficulty in her stride. This was a performance to live long in the memory.
Bursac was not only applauded vigorously at the end, but vociferously cheered, and quite right too. Even the beautiful Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows of William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones reflected, in their oft-repeated phrase Elargissez Dieu, the wonder of a musical performance that had touched the divine.