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
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.
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