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Seen and Heard International Recital Review


Beethoven and Brahms, Boris Berman (piano), Horowitz Piano Series at Yale, Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, December 1, 2004 (CA)

Beethoven; Sonata in F major, op. 54
Brahms; Fantasies, op. 116
Brahms; Waltzes, op. 39
Brahms; Two Rhapsodies, op. 79
Beethoven; 15 Variations and a Fugue in E flat major, op. 35 (“Eroica”)

At a recent recital of Beethoven and Brahms piano music performed by the Russian emigré, Boris Berman, I was struck again by the endless possibilities for interpretation of great works and the fine line between a good performance and a great one. Mr. Berman, tall, with the facial hair of a 19th century count and the stooped shoulders of a Chekovian professor, has had an impressive international career as both a performer and teacher. He is head of the piano department at the Yale School of Music and many of his students and colleagues, a difficult crowd to impress, were in evidence in the audience.

Berman is a powerful performer, both interpretatively and in volume, which gives him a wide range of expressive possibilities. However, his preference for sharp accents and exciting fortissimos takes precedence over romantic nuance and anything pianissimo. A friend commented to me during intermission that this was typical of “The Russian School” of piano playing. To me, this sounds old-fashioned, like the early Tchaikovsky Competition winning performances of Van Cliburn, but Berman has much more to offer than flashy bombast.

Beethoven’s little, two-movement Sonata, op. 54 in F major, is quite lovely, though seldom played. The opening movement is a lyrical tempo d’un menuetto with a syncopated theme, while the following Allegretto is comprised entirely of 16th notes and chromatic writing like a movement of Bach. Berman was fast and clean, but not especially anything beyond these qualities. By comparison, the Brahms op. 116 which followed, a collection of 7 Fantasies, sounded rich, full, a stark contrast to what preceded; almost as if it had been preceded by Bach and not Beethoven.

These wonderful and deceptively complex last piano pieces of Brahms are full of the personal feelings of a confident master with no need to please anyone but himself. Berman’s personal approach may have missed some of the most emotionally remote intentions, but his big technique served him quite well. These familiar works need a layer of the performer’s vision on top to achieve any kind of freshness, and in this Berman succeeded nicely.

In contrast to the late works, the relatively early waltzes, op. 39, are playful, but with a touch of lover’s angst that Berman missed. Brahms originally wrote the Liebeslieder (love-song) waltzes for chorus accompanied by two pianos and they proved so popular that he created a number of transcriptions for his publisher, including this version for solo piano. These were like child’s play for Berman, who tossed them off with an appropriate youthful feel. More little Brahms pieces after intermission, the two Intermezzi from Opus 79, perhaps the most often performed of Brahms’ piano works, were pleasantly presented, but sounded merely familiar. But in a reversal of the first half, the following Beethoven was the highlight of the evening.

The 15 Variations and a Fugue in E flat major, op. 35 (“Eroica”), borrows a nearly trivial theme from the third symphony and turns it into a tour de force of variation. It is one time when Beethoven chose to be light-hearted, to utilize the tongue-in-cheek and the outright musical joke. At the same time, the variations are full of first-order technical challenges for the pianist. Berman got everything but some of the large jumps in the right hand. But it didn’t matter, because this very serious pianist, playing with a little less emotion than one might have hoped for, was suddenly completely on top of Beethoven’s humor. It was so subtle that it caught me a bit off guard, which is probably what we are looking for in a concert performance.

This was great playing: confident, powerful, and expressive of both Beethoven’s music and Berman’s interpretation of it. He had the audience completely engaged and earned himself a standing ovation for the effort.

Why just pleasantly good and then suddenly a transcendent performance? Such is the nature of performance, but such, also, is the nature of personality. Like Chekhov, perhaps, Berman is about serious drama, but that wry, devilish sense of humor is there, as well. And given the chance to express it, we see the full depth of Berman’s range as a first-rate pianist. It is this final analysis that keeps us attending recitals with happy anticipation of the possibilities, even with the familiar.

Clay Andres



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