Julius Reubke was clearly an extraordinary fellow, although I know little about him. He was born in a small village (current population about 800) in central Germany in 1834. He was a clear musical prodigy, who became a student of Franz Liszt, living in his house for a while. Sadly, Reubke contracted tuberculosis at a young age, and died at 24. (Even Schubert lived to 31.) During his few productive years, he composed a number of ambitious and large pieces, both for the organ and the piano.
Daria Burlak, who is 27 or 28, has already outlived Reubke. Born in (of all places) Vladivostok, Russia (on the Pacific coast), she moved to Germany when still a teenager, where she has studied in Cologne, earning diplomas and masters degrees in both piano and organ. Her list of studies is interesting – in addition to those two instruments, she has studied voice, chamber music, improvisation, contemporary music and historical performance. What more can you want?
Burlak (ok, another aside – in Russian, a burlak was a peasant who was yoked like a team of horses or oxen to pull barges up canals) was in Washington for two concerts, one Sunday at the National Cathedral and one today at Epiphany Church, where I saw her (and where the air conditioning failed to function). She chose, as her program, the music of Ruebke.
The two pieces were a piano sonata, and an organ sonata. The organ piece, “Organ Sonata on the 94th Psalm in C minor” is apparently played fairly often. It’s a very evocative, 20 minutes or so piece which brings about a (non-sectarian, in my mind) feeling of depth and spirituality. The Piano Sonata in B flat minor (who writes in that key?) is very reminiscent of Liszt (but not to my mind as well done as mature Liszt) in that it is long and bombastic, and filled and filled and filled with notes, notes and more notes. But not with any memorable melody lines. It’s a piece that, if I never hear it again, I won’t miss it, but if I am at a concert where it is performed, I would be happy to listen to it once more.
But both of these pieces (and particularly the piano sonata) are truly virtuoso pieces. And Burlak is well up to the task. There are 5 listed movements to the sonata – 3 are allegros, and one a presto. And there is no break between movements. And, because it is meant to show off the pianist, I think that Reubke went out of his way to make it difficult to play. And the sonata takes over 30 minutes to perform. Whew!!
Daria Burlak is not a large person. She does not exude strength. But she plays with the force of a heavyweight, and she sits astride the organ, looking like she should hardly be able to reach the pedals, able to do it all.
One last aside. Watching and listening to two major pieces, one for the organ and one for the piano, one after the other, led me to a thought I had never considered before. When you play most instruments, you feel connected to the sound, because the sound is coming from the instrument. This is certainly the way it is playing the piano. But when you play the organ, it is altogether different. No sound emanates from the organ. The sound comes from the pipes, far from the instrument itself. You are playing the organ, but the pipes are the things enveloping you with the music. I wonder if an organist ever feels himself or herself disconnected from the sounds they are creating.
I guess not.