Lazar Berman Rarities = BACH: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; CHOPIN: Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1; BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 – Lazar Berman, piano – IDIS 6646, 57:33 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
“A phenomenon of the musical world,” were the words with which Emil Gilels described pianist Lazar Berman (1930-1975). Berman’s appearance in 1975 in the U.S., and his subsequent recording of the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, set the West on its ear. Berman’s rise in stature became meteoric; but many would claim his agents and imprasario Jacques Leiser overly exploited Berman, and he suffered a creative burnout, particularly since he had ever to contest with Soviet restrictions and the KGB before his emigration to Italy in 1990.
IDI resurrects Italy-based live performances from 1979, 1983, and 1985 from Milan and Carate Brianza, respectively. The Brahms may represent the most audacious piece on the program, but the Chopin stands out, given the infrequency of Chopin on a Berman recital.
Berman refused to play Chopin, explaining that “Of course I used to play him, but many years ago I entered for a Chopin competition in Warsaw, and I did not qualify. It was a tremendous blow to my pride, and I vowed that I would never play him again.” His playing of Chopin, however, exists in documents, in both a concert film and a DGG recording of the Polonaises from the 1970s.
Beginning with Bach’s French Overture to the Partita in C Minor, live from Milan 1985, we feel the presence of a facile and monumental technique in the service of an eminently musical mind. The shape of the phrases, the cleanliness of articulation, and the luxury of passionate filigree all literally explode in a burst of jubilant expression. We feel no attempt to make the piano a harpsichord, but the Allemande assumes a darkly introspective intimacy rare in music. A fleet, contrapuntal Courante leads to a haunted Sarabande, and we feel as though Berman’s plastic art were on a par with that of Backhaus or Casadesus. The last two movements, Rondeau and Capriccio, exert a muscular authority and joie de vivre that dance and sing with voluptuous authority.
Chopin’s Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1, in my opinion “has belonged” to Shura Cherkassky; but Berman’s studied rendition, the trills etche and the sudden shift to the dramatic middle section, bespeak an equally informed sympathy with this intricately passionate music. Berman’s silken legato and pearly play quite beguile us, as they did the Milanese in 1979.
Clara Schumann heralded the Brahms 1854 F Minor Piano Sonata as “one of the most inward pieces that recent piano music has to offer.” The combination of ardent emotional expression and architectural formal necessity combine with the composer’s stylistic leanings to both Beethoven and Schumann. Berman bestows his Herculean technique, heated tempos, and volatile temperament upon the opening Allegro maestoso, which here (1983) surges with alternately symphonic and intimate gestures. Unfortunately, there are sudden cough or hiccoughs in the sound document, but the potent arch of the first movement maintains its Promethean fire. Sweet sixths mark the tender nocturne Brahms labels Andante espessivo, with its quoted lines from a poem by Sternau about two lovers who embrace in the moonlight. The homage clearly points to Robert Schumann, the drooping figures often reminiscent of that composer’s Intermezzi and folk-like filigree.
Rarely have we heard Lazar Berman so intimately bemused, his dimunendi plastically diaphanous. Berman’s smooth legato and strummed chords turn the movement into a troubadour’s song, the piano a stringed rather than percussive instrument. The marvelous choral-setting of the movement’s “epilogue” might have inspired Scriabin’s notion of “mysterium.”
With the rollicking Scherzo, Brahms reveals that he, like Beethoven or Schumann, could exert gruff and impetuous energies, his own nod to Dionysus and Florestan. Berman’s attack proves as vehement, sinewy, and impish as his nocturne had been gossamer. The Trio section, however, assumes a hymnal character, stately and optimistic, the Beethoven rhythm just barely contained below the surface. A bravura transition by Berman sails us back to the da capo, potent and magisterial, rife with the composer’s youthful confidence. Brahms designates the fourth movement Rueckblick, a “backward glance” that embraces the Andante and the funereal Beethoven Fifth motto. Sternau, too, speaks of “how soon the trees become withered.” In the manner of Haydn, Brahms molds his Finale: Allegro moderato ma rubato as a sonata-rondo that leaps up in question-and-answer form. The Brahms predilection for strict counterpoint juxtaposed with his galloping Schumann fantasies proves luxuriant under Berman’s sympathetic hands. The major-key coda, contrapuntal and ingenuously childlike at once, moves with that flamboyant panache in which both composer and Berman can display their cooperative prowess. The last thrusts upon and sweeps of the keyboard light up an already demonstrative audience.
“Perhaps the most fluently consummate performer on the keyboard of all time…”