An interview with pianist Ana-Marija Markovina
by Marc Medwin

“I was always an outsider,” remembers pianist Ana-Marija Markovina. Her voice is lightly pleasant but contains an authority that becomes more and more obvious over time. “I didn’t have many friends, and when I went to Gymnasium, I was the only foreigner in the school. Music was my refuge and my life.”

Outsider status becomes the Croatian pianist, and she has spent her life championing the work of similarly creative minds that refuse facile categorization. Her studies in literature, mysticism and, perhaps foremost, in psychology, have led to musical interpretations that are somehow simultaneously adventurous and balanced, as if encompassing all stages of the journey in a single gesture.

It often proves true, just as art mirrors life, that performance mirrors personality. Our interview demonstrates that Markovina’s mind is a rapid-fire kaleidoscope of facts and figures in sync with a free spirit. For the past ten years, her main focus has been the music of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, whose complete piano works she has recorded in a 26-cd set for Hänssler Classics. Doubtless, it was the most important release in the C.P.E. Bach tricentennial year. The vast majority of the project was recorded in an astonishing year and a half, during which time Markovina gained access to digital versions of the as-yet unpublished keyboard works that the Packard Humanities Institute is slowly incorporating into a complete edition. “They have been very helpful, not only in providing scores but in answering my questions about source materials and dating.” It is clear that the Berlin Bach’s hugely diverse aesthetic is fundamental to Markovina’s own approach to life, art, and the points at which they intersect. “I’ll never forget my first exposure to his music”, she reminisces. “I was preparing the J.S. Bach D-minor concerto and C.P.E.’s D-minor concerto for a single concert, certainly a reasonable pairing. I received the C.P.E. score, and the music hit me, like a flash. I couldn’t believe such a thing was possible.”

A revelation of such magnitude needed follow-up work and consideration, a task for which Markovina’s education ensured preparation. Her studies in gestalt-psychology clearly play a part in her interpretations of the myriad and multivalent soundworlds C.P.E. committed to history, but her interest runs deeper than that. After a fairly lengthy and detailed discussion concerning the difficulties involved in cataloging C.P.E.’s work, I venture a query about why she has dedicated so much time to this composer and his music; her thoughts and voice take sudden fanciful flight. “Have you heard of the 18th century painter Adolph Menzel? No? He painted an homage to Frederick the Great, you know, the Prussian King at whose court C.P.E. was employed. In the painting, you can see the composer at the piano, and if you look close, you see, in his face, irony, serenity, pity, humour — all of it. This is why I’m so totally drawn to his music. As a composer, he reflects the complete range of human feelings. It takes a genius to reflect that quality, that journey, in the life of another genius.”

As might be expected when the outsider path is the one taken, Markovina’s own musical journey began early, with Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. “I was three or four”, she remembers. “I was taken to a store where they had LPs at reduced prices, and my mother bought the LP for me; it was with Alfred Brendel as soloist. I listened to it the way other children listen to popular music. It’s destroyed now, but there is no way to describe how important that experience was.” Her playing does harness the love for detail and intellectual rigour for which Brendel is known and sometimes unjustly castigated. As might also be expected, such a questing spirit does not remain satiated by “the mainstream” for very long. Markovina’s educational path was circuitous and, as she remembers now, complicated. Her interest in piano music was always vying for prominence with an obvious gift for languages, of which she was speaking six fluently by her late teens. For Markovina, the studies of music, art, literature and history were inseparable, even if these diverse pursuits meant that the course toward her present pianism took some time to chart and follow. She singles out Paul Badura-Skoda as the teacher who opened her ears. “You could say that I came from the Russian school, where we concentrate on affect. To be very general about it, smaller details in the score, such as accents, are often ignored in favour of overall affect.” In 1995, Badura-Skoda took Markovina to the Chopin Archive, where sketch studies of the first ballade gave her a revelation akin to that of Saul on the road to Damascus. “He showed me that the score was all that we have of the composer, and in it, you find the composer’s blood and sweat; it only makes sense to pay careful attention to what is written in it. From that point on, I started to buy urtexts, make careful choices concerning editions, my whole way of playing changed.”

To understand the nature of her accomplishments as a player, her structured but spontaneous approach to the music, at least a couple of moments in her huge C.P.E. Bach set should be illuminated. Listen to the exposition of the D-minor sonata (wq 54) as it approaches its end. It has been a relatively angst-fraught journey, but as Emanuel is thwarting that final cadence, as was his father’s habit, he jumps the octaves for a miniscule and humorous motive in the upper register. Markovina simply tweaks its nose the first time, placing more weight on the motif when it is repeated, bringing an improvisor’s sensibility to what might come off as simply structural in indifferent hands. Conversely, Markovina’s take on the fantasy in C-Major (wq 59/6) comprises a study in internal melody. Most artists overplay the “fantastic” element, while Markovina makes sure that the rising internal voices are heard, providing a second level of melodic intrigue as the piece progresses. Markovina’s chosen Bösendorfers lend a glassy clarity, sometimes almost sounding like a fortepiano and rendering each gesture crystalline.

A life could be made studying the Berlin master’s works, but Markovina’s interests remain diverse. Another project, one begun before the intensive sessions completing the C.P.E. Bach compendium, documents the piano output of Anton Urspruch (1850-1907). Markovina has recorded a disc of his solo piano works, and there is another disc and a half to go, by her reckoning, not to mention some very difficult chamber music and a monster piano concerto in the order of Brahms’ second. I was entirely unfamiliar with this extraordinary Liszt pupil’s late-romantic aesthetic, prefiguring Medtner’s advanced chromaticism amidst long lines and irregularly Brahmsian phrases, before hearing Markovina’s first volume, recorded for Genuin. Markovina navigates the labyrinthine twists and turns of the first fantasy piece (opus 2) with warmth and clarity, delivering its sudden shift in mood and texture with the requisite depth and surprise. The second of these five miniatures works along similar lines, and Markovina obviously relishes the sudden and fairly wild modulation from F-sharp minor to G-minor. Her approach to Urspruch’s music is reminiscent of the classic Seon recordings of Bylsma and Leonhardt, detailed without ever losing sight of the larger structure but prone to moments of fantasy. Her romanticism is entirely lacking in erratic pretense, and yet there is no shortage of surprise. “This was another example of how knowing everything about the events surrounding the genesis of a piece of music helps with interpretation,” muses Markovina. “When I began, I knew nothing about Urspruch’s life. Through the music, I was able to deduce various things — a unique personality, that he was bitter, that he did not want to sell himself, that he was uncomfortable with people entering his world. When I finally spoke to his grand-daughter, she was very happy, as that was exactly how his family remembers him!”

Perhaps it is fair to state that, beyond performance, Markovina’s abiding interest is in the many interwoven threads connecting music and life, on as many levels as can be imagined. Early 2015 finds Markovina away from the stage, working on a long-intended literary and philosophical project. In 2011, she began to write a book about the ways in which playing the piano relates to, and might be viewed as a metaphor for, the processes of daily living. “I began writing, and then I founded my own agency, had a child, and unfortunately, the book needed to sit on the back burner for a while. Now that I have a break from what was a very hectic performing schedule, it seems the perfect time to complete it.” Written in German, the book will incorporate ideas from philosophy and psychology. “Think of the things we learn from making mistakes!” Markovina’s voice is rising again; clearly, the project assimilates all facets of her art and of the diverse education that fosters it. “Think of the many implications of the musical pause. It is a time for meditation and reflection, but it must also be considered in the context of the music’s pulse.” I press Markovina on the subject, and I extract from her illuminating reply, delivered via Email:

“The musical rest is a point of reflection and expectation, an exclamation mark after that which was said. We have to bring to perfection in our heads what we learned before we are able to accept new information. In neuroscience it is called the Default Mode Network. It was discovered in 2001 and is active when a person is daydreaming or task-independently introspecting. The active brain parts are the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and the precuneus. These brain areas are more active than during concentration on something specific. The supposed function of the DMN could be a certain creativity potential. We know, or experience, that our "best ideas" are coming in these day dreaming relaxing moments. It is as if the areas which are active for thinking work have to pause, or quiet themselves, so that other regions are able to increase activity and allow us to perceive new possibilities. … In music, the break, or pause, is a fundamental dimension. Without breaths and caesuras, music cannot breathe. …”

Markovina describes different types of pauses and their psychological import, and, as might be imagined, the first composer she mentions is the Berlin master, whose work has been so fundamental to the formation of her musical conceptions. She invokes scientific and philosophical precedent, but only to elucidate this all-important and determinate aspect of her own music making and teaching, though her many accomplishments and convictions in this area constitute their own story. What finally emerges, after our most recent conversation in February 2015, is the portrait of an artist whose initial outsider status has led to extraordinarily inclusive revelations, musical and otherwise. The outsider is forced to create a tradition rather than adopt one, and the totality of Markovina’s vision informs every aspect of her artistry, no matter how it is expressed. Through perseverance, she has become a Whitmanian individual, containing multitudes, revelling in constant growth and reassessment.

Marc Medwin