Many will have been surprised by the omission of Lazar Berman from the Philips ‘Great Pianists of the Century’ series. I certainly was. He was renowned for his thrilling performances of Liszt and was an outstanding representative of the school of Russian Romantic Pianism. A larger than life presence on the concert platform, coupled with a gentle, self-effacing and unassuming manner, he brought to mind images of that other great Lisztian pianist John Ogdon. None other than his compatriot, the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels, referred to him as ‘the phenomenon of the music world’. High praise indeed.
Quite why his star never shone as brightly as some was no doubt due to the ambivalent attitude of the Soviets towards him. The authorities initially wanted to show off their ‘star’ abroad at the beginning of his career, where he made some early recordings of Beethoven’s Appassionata
and the Liszt Sonata. This freedom of travel abruptly ended in 1959 when he married a French woman. The marriage was short-lived, yet Berman was forbidden to travel abroad for a decade and a half. He was forty-five before he was allowed to travel to the United States in 1976, where he gave concerts to great critical acclaim. In 1980 travel restrictions were imposed again when American literature was found in his luggage. It was another ten years before he could travel abroad. During foreign tours he was accompanied by ‘minders’ and his family was not allowed to accompany him, but remained in the Soviet Union as insurance. However, by 1990 he had grown tired of performance and spent the rest of his life teaching and serving on juries of piano competitions. He spent his final days in Italy (he was granted Italian citizenship in 1994), where he died in 2005.
This limited international exposure was only one reason for the pianist’s unjust neglect. Another factor was that his virtuosic inclinations rendered him ‘light-weight’ in the eyes of some. Georges Cziffra suffered a similar fate. Yet Berman’s artistry is far from superficial; he also performed Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
It took twenty-five years for the 12 Transcendental Études to evolve into their present form, undergoing two revisions in the process. The fifteen year old Liszt composed 12 studies Étude en douze exercises
in 1826; these were later revised, becoming more elaborate and technically challenging. They were published in 1838 as Douze Grande Études. A later final version emerged in 1851 with the title Études d'exécution transcendante
, dedicated to Carl Czerny, his teacher. For these, Liszt added programmatic titles in French and German to all but numbers 2 and 10.
This is Berman’s second recorded cycle of the Transcendental Études. His first was recorded in 1959 in the Soviet Union and released on CD in 1997 by BMG/Melodiya as part of the Russian Piano School series (Volume 8). This earlier traversal is interpretively fine but is sonically challenged due to the less than satisfactory audio engineering of the period. The present cycle from 1963 has the advantage of being recorded in stereo, which until now has not had the wide circulation of its predecessor. Columbia released it on LP in the 1970s but, apart from an elusive Japanese CD incarnation, this is the first digital release in the West.
Without drowning the review in superlatives, here are a few highlights of the cycle. In ‘Paysage’ (no.3) I love the way Berman voices the chords, projecting them in a lyrical and expressive way. With judicious pedaling, he colours the score, adding brush-strokes to this musical canvas. The dynamic range from the quietest pianissimos to earth-shattering fortissimos is breath-taking. The drama and passion he brings to this étude is also present in Mazeppa (no.4), which is a virtuosic tour de force. Outstanding are the dazzling, dashing octaves and dexterous scale runs – features of this technically demanding work. This, coupled with his evocation of the dark, demonic undercurrents, put this performance up there with the best. Feux Follets (no.5) has some remarkable rapid double-note passages. The capricious, gossamer lightness achieved evinces the ‘will o’ the wisp’ – the mysterious lights leading the unwary traveler off his allotted course.
The ninth étude is Ricordanza ‘Remembrance’, which Busoni described as ‘faded love letters’. In turn wistful and melancholic, Berman’s rendition does not wallow in sentimentality. With emotion reined in, he imbues the piece with poetic insights. I have always enjoyed Vladimir Ovchinnikov
(EMI CDC 749821) in this particular étude, and to my mind no-one does it better. Harmonies du Soir (no.11) looks forward to impressionism and Debussy. Berman’s wonderful pedal control ensures that none of the rapidly changing shifts in harmony are smudged in any way. This is followed by the final etude in the set, Chasse-Neige. Berman conjures up the image of a devastating snow-storm, and with unalloyed passion brings the cycle to an end.
Lovers of Liszt’s piano music will welcome the release of this 1963 cycle. It has given me no end of pleasure, and it will join the other favorites cycles on my CD shelves – those by Arrau, Bolet and, most of all, by Ovchinnikov.
Booklet notes are in Russian, English and French, and provide biographical background about the pianist. Nicely packaged in an attractive Digipak, this all adds up to a desirable acquisition.