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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Glinka, Khachaturian, Dvorák Boris Berezovsky (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Leif Segerstam, RFH, January 20th, 2005 (CC)

The novelty of hearing the Khachaturian Piano Concerto live was what drew this reviewer out on a cold January London evening. After all, if it was good enough for Kapell or Oborin, it is good enough for me.

The problem with Khachaturian’s concerto is that it requires fierce dedication, a true belief that what you are presenting is great music. There can be no space for even the merest doubt, no matter how twee the melody, how formulaic the keyboard writing. None. That Boris Berezovsky has a sovereign technique is well known. Nothing that Khachaturian threw at him seemed to even stretch his capabilities. Cascades of notes (and there are loads) were beautifully delivered, but also somewhat dutifully. His ability to play with great warmth of tone, yet with complete textural clarity, is mightily impressive, and, unusually for a ‘virtuoso’, he is equally at home in the more lyrical passages than those that must surely turn the printed page black. One question continually flitted across my mind: that this is a flashy piano part in very appealing music, but is it worth all the effort? Certainly listeners don’t need to input too much on the effort front, but one does wonder how much time Berezovsky must have spent …

A theme and variations featuring a violin-doubling flexatone provided the most interesting movement. The problem here seems to lie in the fact that once you’ve heard the Onedin Line (same composer, different piece – Spartacus), there’s no going back and so any theme exhibiting kinship automatically welds itself on to the reference. So it seemed, anyway. But there were some lovely moments (Khachaturian’s penchant for the bass clarinet lent an interesting slant to proceedings).

I cannot possibly reproduce here what I wrote in my listening notes for the finale; ‘banal’ was the second word, though. Berezovsky threw himself into the Soviet Tom-and-Jerry-incidental-music pyrotechnics. Stunning left-hand octaves and a barn-storming cadenza are no substitute for substance, however, and I confess that at the close I leapt out of my seat towards the door as if possessed. To my horror, there was an encore, but I reassured myself that if it was more of the same I was better off in the foyer greeting my delayed guest.

The Glinka (Ruslan Overture) was spoiled by muddy textures at louder dynamics. No doubt that Segerstam enjoyed it, anyway, given the beaming smile on his face come the second subject, but after the Beethoven Symphonies Masur and the LPO had provided the night before, this was distinctly second-rate preparation and delivery. Low voltage delivery has no place in this work.

Dvorak’s ‘New World’ similarly was given a lacklustre run-through. The very opening seemed bass-light, while the development of the first movement was distinctly low on drama. Approaching the main climax of the movement, Segerstam missed out on the crucial cello/bass line that provides the vital harmonic/directional impetus and which in effect sets the journey to the end of the movement into motion.

It was telling that the initial brass entry in the largo was not together, more splattered, and then the section failed to breathe together for the second phrase, leading to another ropey attack; it was clear something was awry. Perhaps the Philharmonia was just not trying. True, there were some lovely moments - spiky wind, and feather-light, exquisitely balanced solo strings, but these were mere moments of excellence in a generally banal landscape.

How they missed the excitement of the Scherzo is beyond me, and the dismissive nature of the final chord was completely lost. Slightly wooden clarinet playing was not the worst of the finale. Far more serious was Segerstam’s loosening of the reins so much that the music came over as far too bitty. A very disappointing concert.

Colin Clarke

Further listening:

Khachaturian: Kapell; Boston SO/Kousseivitzky, Naxos Historical 8.110673 (c/w Prokofiev Third Concerto). Lev Oborin and Mravinsky are coupled with Oistrakh and Kubelík in the same composer’s Violin Concerto on Praga PRA50017.




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