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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major D960 (1828) [39:59]
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Sonata in B minor Op.40, no.2 (1801) [15:42]
Lazar Berman (piano)
rec. live, Milan, 12 November 1972
Experience Classicsonline

It was with Liszt that the pianist Lazar Berman was most associated, but as Danilo Prefumo remarks in his notes for this release, he was not entirely happy with being considered ‘merely a Liszt interpreter’. The works on this re-mastered recording from a recital in Milan in 1972 are indeed not pieces which would be the first choice of a pianist keen on showing just technical fireworks, and show Berman as equal to any of his peers in gazing beyond and into one of Schubert’s most extended poetic statements.

Nothing is said about the concert from which this recording was made, which is a shame. I’m not sure if it was any kind of special occasion, but Berman certainly made it one through his playing. Thinking of Richter and Afanassiev, Russian pianists can have an eccentric and/or special way with Schubert, but Berman’s interpretation of the D960 Sonata is in fact reasonably ‘straight’ – expressive rather than excessive. If I were to compare this recording to a reasonably familiar modern recording then I suppose that of Alfred Brendel would be a fairly close parallel, though to those for whom Brendel’s Schubert is less satisfying I wouldn’t want to do Berman any disservice. What I mean is that Berman largely seeks the expressive intimacy through the inner qualities in the music, rather than imposing extra-musical features to ‘make a point’. His tempi are in no way extreme. The long melodies of the first movement sing through with some sensitive rubato moulding of the shapes and undulations in the music, and the sense of darkness and light is a strong feature throughout. The Sostenuto element in that incredible second movement seems to grow in power as the music progresses, as after a less imposing exposition the theme moves steadily into a darker and more truly funereal place, and even the major modulations in the middle are wreath-strewn and grief ridden. The delicacy of the third movement is a joy, but the drama in the final Allegro is tremendous, with Berman relishing the walking bas lines and, despite some slips, the more pianistic writing through the ff climaxes. The tumult toward the end of the movement gives the impression than Berman is going more and more quickly, but this is kept in check just enough to prevent everything falling apart, and the excitement in the performance is that to which the audience respond with gusto.

Those of us who think of Muzio Clementi as a composer of light, post-Classical or pre-Romantic sonatas may have their preconceptions bruised and re-arranged by Berman’s performance of the Sonata in B minor Op.40, no.2. Beethoven’s high regard for Clementi’s compositions is a matter of record, but with the gruff splendour which Berman gives us from this sonata shows in no uncertain terms from where this creative relationship springs. The music has something of Domenico Scarlatti’s wheeling rondo gestures in its dramatic Allegro con fuoco, but in turbo form – the modern piano turning what would have been fearsome enough on a fortepiano into something genuinely challenging even for today’s listeners. Both movements of this sonata begin with delicately expressive introductions, and then burst into a froth of remarkable and often furious activity, which Berman is again more than happy to get his teeth and agile fingers into. There is remarkable passagework and expressive layering aplenty here, and piano buffs and students may well be transported into some new worlds in this live recording.

As a live concert there is of course the odd contribution from the audience, but nothing too dramatic while the playing is ongoing. There are also one on two minor slips and inaccuracies from Berman, but the force of the musical arguments take one beyond such trivia with ease. My compliments go to Danilo Prefumo for sensitive re-mastering. The recording is decent mono, and good enough to start with, with some rumble but only a few dips in level and some gentle distortion when Berman’s power takes the tape by surprise. This CD gives us as much of the colour and variety in Berman’s playing as must be available on the original tape, and while hiss may have been toned down to a minimum there is no sense of the treble being restricted. While one’s perception might be that this is more of a collector’s item for piano buffs, this disc is however recommendable at every level of musical creativity, and is certainly of historical interest. The label announces that the recording has been released as a ‘Unique authorized edition with the consensus of the Berman Family’, and I for one am grateful that we now have this fascinating sonic document as part of the catalogue.

Dominy Clements


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