The Russian piano school of the twentieth century was admittedly one of the most dazzling, impressive and admired of the era. Thanks to an august lineage (or rather lineages) of great soloists and pedagogues, to a rich tradition and – to a certain extent – even to the forced confinement in the former USSR of many of its members, it developed with recognizable traits of its own, though by no means in a uniform or homogeneous fashion; the playing style of the Russian pianists possessed a certain number of characteristic features, such as virtuosity, brilliance, expressiveness and warmth, which both fascinated and intrigued the Western audiences.
Emil Gilels, one of the greatest protagonists of that tradition, used to maintain that there was a pianist greater than him, still waiting to be discovered by the Westerners: he alluded to Sviatoslav Richter, who achieved international fame only relatively late in his life. Years later, Gilels added that there was a third pianist, who was, in his opinion, the greatest of the three: this time, he was referring to young Lazar Berman. Though this kind of comparisons among giants of the keyboard cannot result in a clear-cut ranking (and Gilels was by no means the lesser of the three), it is however very significant that such an immense musician as Gilels had such a high opinion of a younger performer, whom he defined as a “phenomenon of the musical world”.
Lazar Naumović Berman, of Jewish descent, was born in 1930 in St Petersburg (Leningrad at that time); his mother was his first piano teacher, when the child was barely two years old. As Berman later recalled, “My first impressions in life are related to the piano keyboard. I think I never parted with it… I probably learned to make sounds on the piano before speaking”. At three, Lazar won his first competition, impressing the jury members as “an exceptional case of an extraordinary manifestation of musical and pianistic abilities in a child”, and, in a few years, he could perform works by Mozart and compose his own short pieces. Having won still other competitions, Berman attracted the attention of a famous pedagogue of the Leningrad Conservatory, Professor Samarij Ilić Savšinskij, who took him under his wings; however, in 1939, the Bermans moved to Moscow, where Lazar entered the class of another legendary teacher, the famous Aleksandr’ Goldenwejser. Success followed success, for this child-prodigy of the keyboard, with solo performances with orchestra in his early teens.
Those years, however, were marked by the hardships of war; Berman, along with other students and teachers, had to seek refuge outside Moscow, and was supported – also economically – by his teacher. Goldenwejser was a true mentor for his pupil, who later affirmed: “I learned from [him] to really work on a piece’s text”; Goldenwejser believed that notation was only an imperfect way to preserve and transmit the composer’s intentions, and that the performer’s task was to reconstruct and represent them to the best of his or her capability. Goldenwejser repeatedly stressed the importance of carving the musical phrases and to build up the climaxes; he was also particularly fascinated by the works of Russian composers such as Scriabin, Medtner and Rachmaninov, whom he had met in his youth.
The teacher’s enthusiasm prompted a similar response from his student; Berman spent countless hours practising, so that he later pondered: “You know, I sometimes wonder if I did have a childhood…”. The main focus of this endless training was the achievement of a spotless and masterful technique; Berman was equal to the task, as demonstrated by his graduation at Conservatory at the age of thirteen. As a young pianist, Berman participated in several international competitions, obtaining high rankings (though failing to win the first prize); at the Queen Elizabeth Competition of Brussels, this was the result of a wrong strategy, as Berman replaced one of the items of his programme at the very last minute, thus undermining his chances to be awarded the first prize.
After these European debuts, Berman was invited to perform abroad, and recorded several important piano works for the BBC (including Liszt’s Piano Sonata and Beethoven’s Appassionata). The launch of his international career, however, came to an abrupt halt due to the intertwining of personal and political reasons: having married a French woman, Berman was prevented from travelling abroad by the Soviet authorities. Thus, from 1959 to 1971, Berman’s career was confined to the huge, though slightly claustrophobic, boundaries of the Soviet Republics; his activity of those years is documented by a series of recordings for Melodija, the State-owned company, which published, among others, his brilliant interpretations of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.
Having divorced his first wife, Berman was once more authorized to undertake concert tours abroad; in the Seventies, his popularity and fame were at their highest, and the audiences in Europe and the US enthused over Berman’s amazing pianism. His New York debut with Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes made a sensation, and the pianist seemed to have finally established himself in the Gotha of the greatest world performers. However, just a few years later, Berman was found in possession of a forbidden American book by the Soviet police; this earned him ten more years of forced confinement in the URSS, until, after its 1989 breakdown, Berman left his homeland for Norway, and later for Italy. He was granted Italian citizenship, through an Act of the President of the Italian Republic, in 1994.
The programme recorded in this Da Vinci Classics CD, therefore, is an extremely valuable witness of Berman’s pianism at his best, and it includes works representing his life and personality in a formidable fashion. As we have previously seen, in fact, Emil Gilels was one of the first to acknowledge and promote Berman’s talent. Being is junior by roughly fifteen years (Gilels was born in 1916), Berman could see Gilels both as a model and as a colleague; it is therefore particularly touching to find, in this compilation, a performance dedicated by Berman to the memory of his elder friend. Rachmaninov’s Moment Musical op. 16 no. 3, recorded in 1985, is a particularly apt choice, with its somber colours, its desolate anguish, its elegiac complaint and its expressive tone.
Other pieces, in this programme, bear witness to Berman’s extremely virtuoso pianism and to his total mastery of the technical aspects of piano performance. This is the case, among others, of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz I and of the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 9, as well as of Liszt’s extremely complex piano transcription from Schubert’s masterpiece of a Lied, Erlkönig. Mephisto Waltz is in fact one of the touchstones of technical prowess, as well as an unforgettable depiction of the diabolic character from Goethe’s Faust. The demonic protagonist is portrayed as playing the violin in a Paganinesque fashion, and manages to seduce and enthrall his listeners through the power of his music and the wonderous skill he displays. Similarly, the elven king of yet another of Goethe’s unforgettable creations, the ballad Erlkönig, is an equally (if not even more) evil figure; by charming an ailing child with his enchanting speech the elven king frightens the boy to death, under the despairing eyes of the child’s father. If Schubert’s original Lied was a tour de force for both the singer (who has to represent the three characters of the ballad) and the pianist, who imitates the horse’s hooves through a mesmerizing (and exceedingly fatiguing) sequence of octaves, the piano version of Liszt is almost a sum of transcendental difficulties.
The Hungarian Rhapsody is no child’s play either: the piece, known as The Carnival of Pest, is a buoyant depiction of a festive ball, where elegance, refinement and seduction gradually make place for a crescendo of emotions, virtuosity, power and brilliance, up to the thrilling and exhilarating conclusion. The other Schubert transcriptions by Liszt are, instead, less virtuosic, and thus they allow us to experiment some other qualities of Berman’s pianism: the troubled thoughts of Gretchen, once more a Goethean figure, who sings to an accompaniment evoking the rotations of the spinning wheel, and the expressive melody of the Ave Maria, are among the best-known examples of Schubert’s poetry and of Liszt’s skill in the art of transcription. Similarly, the Italian scenes from Liszt’s Années de pélérinage may be less blinding than the Hungarian Carnival, but yet they maintain a freshness of inspiration which never fails to conquer the listeners.
Finally, Berman’s interpretation of Scriabin’s Fantasie op. 28 is not only a splendid monument to the pianist’s narrative power and to his ability – learnt at Goldenwejser’s school – to build wave upon wave of sound and tension; it is also a living testimony to a tradition which dated back to Scriabin himself, who had been among Goldenwejser’s acquaintances. This magnificent piece, resembling a Sonata Allegro, allows the performer to display both technique and musicianship, with its almost orchestral timbres and its passionate tone.
Thus, by listening to this CD, we may have a glimpse of Berman’s art and of his skill, of his poetic world and of his mastery of the instrument, of his virtuosity and of his refined touch; this recording, therefore, is almost a living memory of one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Lazar Berman: The Russian pianist, Lazar Naumovich Berman [Russian: Лазарь Наумович Берман, Lasari Naumovič Berman] was born to Jewish parents in Leningrad. His mother, Anna Makhover, had played the piano herself until ear problems stopped her. She introduced the boy to the piano, and he entered his first competition at the age of 3, and recorded a W.A. Mozart fantasia and a mazurka that he had composed himself at the age of 7, before he could even read music. Emil Gilels described him as a "phenomenon of the musical world". When Lazar was 9, the family moved to Moscow so that he could study with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Conservatoire, as well as with Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Sofronitsky and Maria Yudina. The next year he made his formal debut playing W.A. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1941, students, pupils and parents were evacuated to Kuibichev, a village on the Volga, because of World War II. Living conditions were so poor that his mother had to cut the fingers from a pair of gloves to allow him to continue to practise without freezing his hands.
Lazar Berman subsequently began to acquire a small international visibility. At the age of 12 he played Franz Liszt's La Campanella to a British audience over the radio; in 1956 he won a prize at the Queen Elizabeth Music Competition in Belgium, with Vladimir Ashkenazy; and in 1958, he performed in London and recorded for Saga records.
Although Lazar Berman was known to international music aficionados who had heard the occasional recording on the Russian Melodiya record label, as well as those who visited the Soviet Union, he was not generally well known outside Russia before his 1975 American tour, organised by the impresario Jacques Leiser. His New York debut at the 92 Street Y, where he played F. Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, was a lightning bolt of a sensation. Before that, he had been generally restricted to the Soviet concert circuit, playing on old and decrepit pianos to audiences of varied degrees of interest. Invitations to tour outside the Soviet Union were ignored by the Soviet state concert agency, Gosconcert. He lived in a tiny two room apartment in Moscow, with a grand piano occupying an entire room. But after his 1975 tour, he was immediately in great demand, with Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, and CBS vying to record him. He recorded the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Herbert von Karajan, as well as broadcasting it on international television with Antal Doráti, to mark United Nations Day in 1976. Most of his British appearances came in the late 1970's and early 1980's. In December 1976, he performed music by Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt at the Royal Festival Hall, in 1978 he played F. Liszt's A major concerto with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Symphony Orchestra, and in 1984 he played Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto with Sir John Pritchard at the Proms.
The Soviet authorities even then intermittently restricted Lazar Berman's international travels; in 1980 his scheduled appearance at the Llandaff Festival had to be cancelled. It was at that time when after a trip to the West, American literature banned in the Soviet Union was found in his luggage by the KGB watchdogs. As the result, his name was black-listed, and his career was black-flagged by the Soviet authorities. His being Jewish only aggravated the issue (In the Soviet Union, Jews were considered potential dissidents and subjects to flee the country.) The frequency of this interference declined, however, as the Soviet Union entered the last phase of its existence, and he finally left Russia for Italy in 1990, settling in Florence in 1995.
Lazar Berman's playing showed great technical brilliance, showmanship, emotional and physical force. He had the endurance to play three concertos or sonatas in one night, and was considered a brilliant interpreter of Franz Liszt, winning the 1977 Franz Liszt Prize in Hungary for his interpretation of the Transcendental Studies. He once described the driving forces of his style as being lyricism, clarity and virtuosity. He refused to play Frédéric Chopin, explaining "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 F. Chopin, however, is well documented, in both a concert film and a DGG recording of the polonaises from the 1970's.
He was survived by his wife Valentina, also a pianist, whom he married in 1961, and their only son, the talented violinist and conductor Pavel Berman. Recently, his memoires were published in German and in Russian. They are titled "The Years of Peregrination. A Musician's Reverie".
Alexander Scriabin: (b Moscow, 25 Dec 1871/6 Jan 1872; d Moscow, 14/27 April 1915). Russian composer and pianist. One of the most extraordinary figures musical culture has ever witnessed, Skryabin has remained for a century a figure of cultish idolatry, reactionary yet modernist disapproval, analytical fascination and, finally, aesthetic re-evaluation and renewal. The transformation of his musical language from one that was affirmatively Romantic to one that was highly singular in its thematism and gesture and had transcended usual tonality – but was not atonal – could perhaps have occurred only in Russia where Western harmonic mores, although respected in most circles, were less fully entrenched than in Europe. While his major orchestral works have fallen out of and subsequently into vogue, his piano compositions inspired the greatest of Russian pianists to give their most noteworthy performances. Skryabin himself was an exceptionally gifted pianist, but as an adult he performed only his own works in public. The cycle of ten sonatas is arguably of the most consistent high quality since that of Beethoven and acquired growing numbers of champions throughout the 20th century.
Franz Liszt: (b Raiding, (Doborján), 22 Oct 1811; d Bayreuth, 31 July 1886). Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher. He was one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music. In his compositions he developed new methods, both imaginative and technical, which left their mark upon his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated some 20th-century ideas and procedures; he also evolved the method of ‘transformation of themes’ as part of his revolution in form, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem for orchestra. As the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he used his sensational technique and captivating concert personality not only for personal effect but to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composers’ music. As a conductor and teacher, especially at Weimar, he made himself the most influential figure of the New German School dedicated to progress in music. His unremitting championship of Wagner and Berlioz helped these composers achieve a wider European fame. Equally important was his unrivalled commitment to preserving and promoting the best of the past, including Bach, Handel, Schubert, Weber and above all Beethoven; his performances of such works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata created new audiences for music hitherto regarded as incomprehensible. The seeming contradictions in his personal life – a strong religious impulse mingled with a love of worldly sensation – were resolved by him with difficulty. Yet the vast amount of new biographical information makes the unthinking view of him as ‘half gypsy, half priest’ impossible to sustain. He contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician.
Profile from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians
Sergey Rachmaninov: (b Oneg, 20 March/1 April 1873; d Beverly Hills, CA, 28 March 1943). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism. The influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers soon gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom, with a pronounced lyrical quality, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colours.