She occupies a special place in the sober, straightforward world of Dutch piano. Marietta Petkova (Roese, 1968) has lived near Amsterdam for many years, but it is precisely there where her Slavic soul took flight. Following her training in Sofia, the Bulgarian pianist arrived in The Netherlands to continue her studies with Jan Wijn, the uncrowned king of the nation’s piano pedagogues. She also studied with the Hungarian-American György Sebök (1922-1999), whose incisive psychological insight earned the adoration of his students. Sebök inspired countless musicians with statements such as, “Change creates space within ourselves to discover something different. If you are afraid, you need courage. If you are fearless, you need nothing.”
Petkova absorbed the best of both teachers, and added her own sensitive insight.
I heard her for the first time in 2000 in the Recital Hall of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, performing Rachmaninov’s 10 Études Tableau and 11 Préludes. This music, with its stratospheric technical demands, complex weave of voices, and intoxicating melodies and harmonies, too often results in a chaotic muddle of undifferentiated sound. Not yet having heard Petkova, I dreaded the concert. But to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into Petkova’s clear and emotionally scorching playing.
“As if they were his secret diaries, Petkova ‘reads’ all the emotions and ideas that obsessed Rachmaninov when he composed”, I concluded at the time in my review for the NRC Handelsblad. “Effortlessly Petkova re-discovered that deep, dark and melancholy toucherwhich built virtuoso Rachmaninov’s reputation. Through this she sculpts musical images of unimaginable emotional expressiveness. But besides being the ideal messenger, Petkova shone as a brilliant architect in full control of all the building blocks that constructed Rachmaninov’s music.”
Am I exaggerating?, I asked myself at the time when I wrote these sentences.
No, not at all, I confirmed. And I continued to read:
“Only rarely is Rachmaninov interpreted with such a unique sense of timing and climax of tension, clarity of voicing, and rich coloring. What is perhaps the most amazing about Petkova is her modesty – which probably explains why she is not better known. But this will surely change, because Petkova is a divinely inspired natural talent.”
And she still is, eighteen years on, demonstrated in late November in her recital with Debussy’s Préludes Book 1, and three Chopin Ballades. Not that her great talent has made her world-famous; her playing is perhaps too sensitive and too exceptional to be labeled in a clearly defined category. Petkova is a pianist for connoisseurs and unorthodox music lovers. Her passionate playing is an ode to imagination and sensitivity. Those listeners who can surrender to this will be transported to an enchanted world of sound that continues organically to the subtlest changes of mood that human ears can detect. Through this, Petkova exceeds the boundaries of time and space. She elevates the notes to their ultimate expressiveness.
Petkova is a pianist for connoisseurs
And that is not only with music of romantic composers like Rachmaninov and Chopin. Petkova interpreted Chopin’s heartfelt musical appeals in his first three Ballads (G op. 23, F op. 38 and A minor op. 47) with the passion and poetry of love letters. But she astounded us particularly, and especially, during her surprisingly evocative, mature, and lively interpretation of Debussy’s first 12 Préludes. With marvelous timing and dynamics, she explored all the possibilities of sound and coloring of the score. In strong, pulsating lines she let the dreamy world and earthly scenes of Debussy’s “sound impressions” combine harmonically, sparking the imagination so beautifully and purely that they seemed palpable and visible.
In the Reformed Daily newspaper interview some years ago, Petkova said that her artistic mission is to be the purest possible medium between the composer and the audience. “My goal is to come into contact with my audience. I want to touch a tender spot. That can cause emotions, including anger or exuberance. I don’t want to force anything, but to spark something. After a concert with work by Prokoviev, a woman told me that she visualized the house she grew up in. That’s wonderful! Another person said: ‘Tonight, you played just for me.’ And this happens even though there are 200 people in the audience. I’m a messenger between the composer and the listener. At the end of the day, it’s the composition that moves people. But I also have to give my all, to pour my heart and soul into it, but not just to please them – I’m not a circus act. The audience can sense immediately whether you are being authentic or acting. If you tell the composer’s story through the music as genuinely as possible, it will reach the audience.”
And that is precisely what Petkova achieved at the end of November in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw’s Recital Hall with Chopin and Debussy. In a few months Petkova will release a solo album with works by Debussy, to be recorded during a live performance in Switzerland. With that recording, which I am waiting for impatiently, she’ll present the French composer in all of his quasi-formal and abstract attempts to escape musical predictability, certainly liberated from the usual “French” (i.e., reticent and rational) interpretations. And rightly so, because ultimately Debussy’s music contains many veils of emotion, as elusive and well- hidden as the microscopic life that makes the oceans possible.