Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Boris Berezovsky (RFH)

This, apparently, was Boris Berezovsky's first London recital in 4 years, and without the backing of a major record label (he now records for the French outfit Mirare, Teldec long having disappeared in the confusing mess that's become of EMI, Warner et al.) the Royal Festival Hall, its balcony closed off, seemed like a slightly optimistic choice of venue. Still, there was an enthusiastic turn-out for an intriguing programme: a selection of Debussy Préludes Book I and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit; hulking chunks of big Rachmaninov (half a dozen Preludes and the Second Sonata) in the second half.

It was the first time I'd heard Berezovsky in Debussy, and his approach in the Préludes--and two movements from the first series of Images, 'Reflets dans l'eau' and 'Mouvement', announced last minute as substantial amuse-bouches--was certainly impressive. Berezovsky's virtuosity is such that he can achieve a level of nonchalance in this repertoire that few can, with arpeggios flitting almost imperceptibly up and down the keyboard, repeated notes humming rather than throbbing or thumping, everything managed with astonishing, unemphatic clarity. But with the Steinway apparently conditioned to maximise cleanliness of sound, there was also a shortage of colour, and the nonchalance often seemed too much.

The famous 'La Fille aux cheveux de lin' was beautifully turned, but very reluctant to linger; 'Minstrels' was simply too throwaway, I thought. Both 'Le vent dans la plaine', though, and 'Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest' were irresistible for their sheer facility and lightness, characteristics that also made Berezovsky's Gaspard de la nuit (recorded so impressively, and with similar clarity 20 years ago as part of a Ravel recital for Teldec--which also included 'La Valse', hence the clip below) so intoxicating, its famously taxing handfuls of notes managed with such apparent coolness. Granted, as hinted above, Berezovksy's coolness in the French repertoire risks feeling too non-committal at times, but there's a lot to be said for such 'objectivity' in what is, after all, deliberately cool and detached music.

And funnily enough, the first half of this concert proved far more rewarding than the second, largely because of the programming. The originally-advertised Variations on a theme of Chopin were replaced by a selection of the Op. 32 preludes that seemed too unvaried, with only the well-known G-major No. 5 providing respite from the overwrought, insistent climaxing of the others--or at least that was the impression as Berezovsky's playing seemed to become more prone to clattering fortissimos. There wasn't much let up with the Sonata (given in its revised 1931 version), either, despite some beautiful playing in its central Lento. At the end of an increasingly forceful account of the finale, I felt somewhat battered.

It was left to two encores to show what this recital could have been with a little more imaginative programming. 'Autumn Song' from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons was exquisitely hushed and delicate (there's no Berezovsky playing it on youtube, so I've plumped for Lev Oborin below); Liszt's 'Gnomenreigen' Study was no less delicate, sustained with blistering virtuosity at a daringly fast tempo. Needless to say, it brought the house down.

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