Lazar Berman interpreta Liszt

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Lazar Naumovich Berman (1930 – 2005) è stato senza alcun dubbio uno degli interpreti lisztiani più eminenti del Novecento. Questo video della Sonata in si minore di Liszt, ripreso a Bonn durante la Beethovenfest 1977. documenta un’ esecuzione di livello assolutamente storico, che si colloca tra le cinque o sei massime interpretazioni di questo brano da quando esistono le testimonianze registrate.

Sulla figura di questo straordinario pianista, ecco cosa scriveva il grande critico inglese Bryce Morrison in un articolo commemorativo apparso su The Guardian in occasione della scomparsa dell’ artista, avvenuta il 6 febbraio 2005 a Firenze, dove Berman si era trasferito dopo il crollo dell’ Unione Sovietica.

The Russian pianist Lazar Berman, who has died aged 74 of a heart attack, was a virtuoso in the grandest of grand traditions. Long confined to the Soviet Union and its then communist satellite countries, he began his international career only in the mid-1970s, achieving extraordinary celebrity through performances of great power and command.

Born in Leningrad, Berman was taught the piano by his mother from the age of two, and by Samary Savshinsky of the Leningrad Conservatory from the age of three-and-a-half; his recital debut came at four. In 1939, the family moved to Moscow, and Berman continued his studies with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Central Children’s music school – his concerto debut given with the Moscow Philharmonic when he was 10 – and then, from 1948 to 1953, at the Moscow Conservatory, where his postgraduate studies continued until 1957.

At the time he entered the Queen Elizabeth international competition in Brussels in 1956, such events were star-studded: on that occasion the competitors included Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Browning and Cécile Ousset, and the jurors Arthur Rubinstein, Emil Gilels and Annie Fischer. Berman came fifth, and a European tour followed, including a 1958 London recital of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Liszt at the Royal Festival Hall.

However, though Gilels had already described him as “the phenomenon of the musical world”, Berman was then confined to the Soviet Union for 17 years from 1959, possibly because of his marriage to a French woman.

None the less, his reputation was still able to grow through recordings on the Melodiya label, starting with unforgettable accounts of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, first in 1959, and again to even better effect in 1963, once stereo was available. Releases of such repertoire, displaying an unbridled degree of brilliance and romantic rhetoric, followed in profusion: a disc of Rachmaninov’s Six Moments Musicaux also included a scarcely credible performance of Chopin’s B minor Étude, opus 25 no 10, where Berman’s seamless legato octave technique is heard at its height.

Once he was free to resume international touring in 1976, he took London, Paris, New York and the rest of the musical west by storm, appearing with such celebrated conductors as Karajan, Giulini, Abbado, Bernstein and Barenboim, and with orchestras such as the Berlin and the New York Philharmonics. Extravagantly billed as “the world’s greatest living pianist”, he played to awe-struck audiences in programmes that often included the Liszt and Rachmaninov works known from the early recordings; new recordings included Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Third.

In an interview for the magazine Music And Musicians, I once playfully described Berman as the “Muhammad Ali of the keyboard”, prompted by his recollection of early stunts such as playing the finale of Chopin’s Third Sonata with crossed hands as an encore at a recital in Russia. Such a feat seemed open-heartedly to exclaim: “I am the greatest!”

Berman later reflected on such performances with wry amusement as he sought for ever-increasing depth and refinement in his music making. And if his Liszt recordings rank among the most intimidating displays of physical bravura, they were also notably for an intense drama and romantic fervour.

His playing was less acclaimed in the classical repertoire: his recordings of, say, the Schubert B flat Sonata and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata reveal serious limitations. None the less it is easy to underestimate his scope, particularly when one recalls his 1977 recording of Liszt’s Années De Pélerinage (Years Of Pilgrimage). In the austere, dark-hued romanticism of Book Three, his playing is of a rare inwardness and delicacy.

From 1980, at the height of his success, he was beset by further travel restrictions after the discovery of banned American books in his luggage. In 1990, he left Moscow to teach in Norway and Italy, where he eventually settled. By then, musical fashions had changed, and his popularity faded. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on teaching and appearances on competition juries, where his concentration and enthusiasm were clearly challenged.

Modest but witty in conversation, he once told me that he didn ‘t play Scarbo, the demonic gnome that follows evocations of a water sprite and a gallows in Ravel’ s suite Gaspard de la Nuit “because I don’ t like it, and because it is a perfect gibet for the pianist. Generally speaking, I play what I like. It is the simplest and best criterion.”

He is survived by his third wife, Valentina, also a pianist, and by his violinist son Pavel, with whom he gave concerts.

· Lazar Naumovich Berman, pianist, born February 26 1930; died February 6 2005

Conobbi Lazar Berman tramite le sue incisioni Melodya degli anni Sessanta, che a quell’ epoca si potevano trovare non troppo difficilmente nei negozi specializzati in LP d’ importazione, e poi attraverso i primi dischi incisi in Occidente, tra cui spiccano ancora oggi il Primo concerto di Tchaikowsky realizzato insieme a Herbert von Karajan per la DG nel 1975 e il Terzo di Rachmaninov con Claudio Abbado, pubblicato tre anni dopo. Ebbi l’ occasione di ascoltarlo per la prima volta dal vivo nell’ ottobre 1979, in due concerti tenuti a Padova nella Sala dei Giganti del Liviano e poi al Teatro Duse di Asolo. Il primo dei due appuntamenti era tutto dedicato a Liszt, mentre ad Asolo il pianista eseguì l’ Ottava Sonata di Prokofiev e i Quadri di una Esposizione. L’ impressione che riportai da quelle due serate fu assolutamente sconvolgente. Per rendersi conto di come suonasse Berman a quell’ epoca, ascoltate questa esecuzione dello Studio Trascendentale numero 10 di Liszt, da un concerto milanese del 1976.

Mezzi tecnici di altissimo livello, al servizio di una concezione interpretativa di grandiosa epicità. Ascoltare Berman in Liszt, nel Terzo Concerto di Rachmaninov o nel Primo di Tchaikowsky era, se riesco a rendere l’ idea, come sentire Beethoven o Bruckner interpretati da Furtwängler.

Ecco cosa scriveva al riguardo il critico Donal Henahan sul New York Times, recensendo un concerto di Berman del 10 febbraio 1987 alla Carnegie Hall.

THERE was a great deal of extramusical excitement surrounding last night’ s piano recital at Carnegie Hall by Lazar Berman, and, of course, some musical interest as well. An appearance by the Soviet virtuoso, his first here in seven years, was certain to generate curiosity. However, before the music could begin, the entire audience was kept standing outside in the bitter cold for as much as 25 minutes while an electronic security check was run, airport-style, by guards stationed immediately inside the hall’ s doors. The precautions were taken because the management had been warned that demonstrators planned to disrupt the program.

Disrupt it they did, for a while. Before Mr. Berman could undertake his first selection, Liszt’ s ”Dante” Sonata, two men screaming ”Free Soviet Jews” and other anti-Soviet slogans were seized and hustled from the hall, to a chorus of catcalls and boos, most of which seemed opposed to the interruption.

Mr, Berman, apparently undisturbed by the commotion, launched into the Liszt with tremendous power and dazzling facility. The big technique that one remembered from his previous New York performances has not been mislaid. It was unfortunately true, nonetheless, that Mr. Berman persistently used this keyboard mastery like a blunt instrument. The ”Dante” Sonata took on the character of a piano-crusher, without much interpretive subtlety or nobility.

Stark contrasts of volume and mood were what Mr. Berman aimed at during the first half of the program, devoted to Liszt and Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs. After a prevailingly thunderous ”Dante” came the reflective pieties of ”Sposalizio,” and a blandly mooning ”Ave Maria” was followed by a heavy-handed ”Erlkonig.” The heart-stopping drama of the latter Schubert masterpiece was lost entirely, thanks in some respect to Liszt’s embroidering but also to the pianist’s persistence in treating everything he played as piano music first and music second.

No one could complain, for instance, about Mr. Berman’s digital fluency in the ”Mephisto Waltz” No. 1. Name your keyboard problem and he can overcome it with little trouble. But the dramatic ebb and flow of Lenau’s poem was hardly suggested as Mr. Berman rattled and rumbled his way through this diabolically evocative work as if it were no more than a noisy showpiece.

No doubt the heavy technical artillery that Mr. Berman has at his disposal was deployed brilliantly in Mussorgsky’s ”Pictures at an Exhibition,” which the unusual circumstances of the evening forced this reviewer to miss. A more innovative program choice, however, was Shostakovich, six of whose Opus 34 Preludes began the second, Russian, half of the program. Shostakovich received the full benefit of Mr. Berman’ s scintillating fingerwork. In music so rarely heard in live recitals, one had to be thankful for that, even while wondering if the pieces might not contain more substance than the pianist’ s blunt approach managed to convey. For all his tremendous skill, Mr. Berman in his eagerly anticipated return impressed this listener as an artist of rather narrow expressive range. It could be that, despite his apparently calm demeanor, the tension of the evening contributed to a one-dimensional aspect in his playing. One must hope so.

Per concludere, ascoltiamo queste due strepitose esecuzioni di Gretchen am Spinnrade e di Erlkönig, da un concerto tenuto a Milano il 22 novembre 1989.