Behind those splendid recordings: a very special pianist

Connoisseurs of the art of piano playing have long known the name Bella Davidovich --of the special musicians of our day. She won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1949 and made 17 records in the Soviet Union.

Travelers to Amsterdam and other European cities have also had chances to hear her play in person, a privilege not accorded American audiences until last season.

And even then, it was not as an official visitor from the Soviet Union, but as a Russian emigre, who came over in 1978 with her mother and sister to be with her son, who had requested and been granted emigration papers in 1977. Her October '79 Carnegie Hall debut was a sellout and a critical triumph. And she has hardly had time to sit down and be quiet since: Last season and this she will log some 140 engagements.

Mme. Davidovich was in Boston a few days before her recital debut in Symphony Hall. The red-headed pianist is slighter of build than I realized, but she effortlessly becomes the center of attraction with her inner sparkle. She speaks little English as yet, and the get-together actually included two translators. She is quite candid about her old life in the Soviet Union and still amazed at marvelous things she can see and do here in America. In New York, she can buy Soviet books (and even eat Russian fish) that haven't been seen in the USSR in years. And she is awed by the musical feast that is New York.

It was inevitable that the first topic of conversation would focus on her emigration. After all, it is rare for a musician so established in the Soviet Union to want to leave. Her husband had been a prominent violinist known to the likes of Isaac Stern. Her husband's passing, after merely eight years of marriage, left her with the son who was later to change her life by requesting the emigration papers. As she stated, "He was the only member of our family to have the foresight."

Though her career was flourishing (in Amsterdam she had appeared to wild acclaim 12 years running), the dates suddenly stopped after her son's request. From a regular schedule in and out of the country, to nothing --quipped with a warm smile. Mme. Davidovich pointed out that The Soviet concert bureau Goskonsert never gives explanations, and that artists never know where they are going until they are told, which is after all the arrangements have been completed.

Her son came to America, and through various phone conversations she had with him, she knew he was happy. She felt it increasingly important to be with him. So she applied for emigration, along with her sister and her mother. They settled in Kew Gardens, Queens, N.Y., an area where many other emigres have settled.

She is now regularly encountering what she only had limited access to in the Soviet Union -- American musical institutions. She remembers that when the Boston Symphony Orchestra first appeared in the Soviet Union, the three concerts -- two under Charles Munch, one under Pierre Monteux -- startled and stupefied (her own word) the Soviets. She heard (and in many cases met) artists like Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Lorin Maazel, and Zubin Mehta (both conductors were invited to direct Soviet orchestras). And there were other orchestras that made a vivid impression on her, including the Cleveland (with George Szell), the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein, and the San Francisco with Seiji Ozawa.

Now she will be playing with many of those orchestras, and has already made new friends, such as Claudio Arrau.

Mme. Davidovich was known in this country through her records -- some 17 in all, all of which are now unavailable in the Soviet Union. I first got to know her work through a Chopin First Piano Concerto performance with Alexander Yansons -- an elegant, patrician performance full of nuance and finesse.

She is now an exclusive Philips artist, and her first three recordings include the 24 Chopin "Preludes" (9500 666), a Beethoven record of the 14th ("Moonlight") and 18th ("Hunt") Sonatas and the A minor Bagatelle known as "Fur Elise" (9500 665), and a Schumann disc devoted to "Carnaval" and "Humoreske" ( 9500 667). Any one is a splendid introduction of Davidovich's special qualities. If the Chopin is the most instantly appealing, for its gentle persuasion and its eloquently insightful, unfussy style, it in no way undercuts the special qualities of the two other records.

The opening Adagio to the "Moonlight" sonata is suffused with a memorable melancholia. The 14th may have received more tempestuous performances, yet rarely but rarely one so persuasive in its understated mood-painting. Again, something as volatile and expressive as Schumann's "Carnaval" gets a less-propulsive performance than one might at first like, but further encounters reveal that eloquence, that dignity, that ability to get graciously under the skin of the emotion without sentimentality or tawdry or overstated effect.

In concert, she is even more impressive. The tone is not large, but it carries beautifully. The insights into the music are the mark of a true master. Her Haydn had just the right edge of control, of balance between melodic line and accompaniment, just the right touch of limpidity in the phrasing. She plays the Schumann "Humoreske" dreamily, gently. Not surprisingly, she scores her most impressive points in the quieter moments of introspection. The needed sense of bluster and power for this particular Schumann were missing for a work that needs more help than Mme. Davidovich actually gave it.

Her Mendelssohn "Variations Serieuses" was expertly gauged, pliant and supple , wonderfully tuneful. The exquisite mood she set in the Chopin Barcarolle she proceeded to sustain with breathless poignancy. Her Chopin is gentle, and very pliant, but that flexibility of tempo is so crucial to the right mood the composer is asking for. In the fourth Scherzo, she brought a mercurial elegance where others find digital powerhousery -- fluently articulate, wonderfully accentuated, exquisitely sensitive in its shift of moods and magic. She truly represents the finest of anym pianistic tradition, let alone Russian.

When she was asked if there was any such thing as a Russian school of pianism , she observed that her first teacher, Constantin Igumnov, was responsible for first bringing to Moscow the old St. Petersburg tradition of making the piano sing. After his death, Professor Fliere taught her, allowing her the leeway to make it her own, while carrying on Igumnov's tradition.

About making a career as a woman pianist in the Soviet Union, she admits it was difficult. There are not the opportunities for instrumentalists that exist for opera singers, she said. For the most part women are expected to raise families and tend house. She readily recognizes that if her husband had not been a noted performer with an active schedule and the ensuing understanding of the demands of an artistic career, there would have been problems.

It is no secret that displaced Russians often tend to miss their homeland more than some other displaced natives. What Mme. Davidovich particularly misses is her students at the Moscow Conservatory (where she taught for 16 years), and those that have gone on to performing careers. She is able to phone close friends back home now and then, so the ties are not altogether broken, and no interruption of her mails has been noted.

Of course, she is particularly fortunate that her entire family is with her, since not always are entire families released. And now she is free of so many of the problems Soviet musicians face, as the Shostakovich memoirs chronicled so poignantly. On that subject, the pianist says that most of the situations described in that book had the ring of gritty familiarity. But she evidently was always able to be at a keyboard -- except during the interim emigration years -- which for her is true fulfillment. Hers was the classic career-choosing-the-person, for she says there was never any choice -- even as a child she wanted to be at the keyboard. This compulsion keeps her spirit active , and we in the West are now reaping the benefits.

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