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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Concert Review: First Cake, Then Ice Cream

The pianist Boris Berezovsky returns to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Boris Berezovsky onstage at the Mariinsky Theater..
Photo copyright 1996 mariinsky.ru.
When the Russian virtuoso pianist Boris Berezovsky last gave a recital in New York City, Bill Clinton was president and Zankel Hall didn't evenexist. So Tuesday night marked the pianists debut at Carnegie’s modern subterranean venture, billed with a finger-busting program of piano études by Bartók, Ligeti and Liszt.

The evening did not go exactly as advertised. When Mr. Berezovsky walked onstage, he told his audience that he would start the recital by playing the Liszt first. This was met with applause, for performing all twelve of the  Transcendental Études is no mean feat. These are popular concert pieces that routinely cherry-picked for showy encores, but they were written to teach difficult pianistic tricks and for Liszt to show off before his adoring public. Taken together, these twelve works represent one of the many heights of Liszt’s vast output for his instrument.

Liszt took a hard-headed approach to solving technical problems on his instrument, requiring dazzling runs to both extremes of the keyboard, hammered intervals of thirds, fourths and fifths and toccata passages that are the bane of every would-be virtuoso pianist that followed in his footsteps. The twelve Études  also vary in color and mood, from the extended romanticism of the eleven-minuteRicordanza to Fusées and Wilde Jagd, two showpieces that require both white-knuckle nerves and ferocious technique.

From the opening bars of the Prelude, Mr. Berezovsky demonstrated that he had every necessary skill to execute these works. He worked hard, sweating visibly through the first two Études before stretching out on Paysage, a dreamy landscape whose slow tempo still requires busy hands. At each pause, he stopped and mopped his brow with a brown kerchief kept within the Steinway, and the audiences’s first wave of applause came during the fourth Étude, the wildly popular Mazeppa.

And so it continued with Mr. Berezovsky knocking off one feat after another and the enthusiasm of the audience building with each Étude. Finally, the pianist foxed his followers by playing the elegiac Harmonies de Soir and the impressionistic Chasse-Niege without a break between. This forced the audience to curb their enthusiasm until the set was complete.

Mr. Berezovsky returned after intermission, settling down to play the tricksy and rhythmically chalking Three Études by Bartók. These use that composer's s extensive research into Hungarian folk song combined with difficult rhythms and angular keyboard phrases, presented in a rapid fast-slow-fast sequence. The last of these even incorporates a bit of holdayncheer, contianing a folk song that shares its melody with the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas." And then, things got weird.

Now, if you don't go to many piano recitals, you should know that pianists usually agree to stick to the written program. It's an accepted convention of the classical recital, a performance format that was created by Liszt himself. However, following the Bartók, Mr. Berezovsky announced that he was done with playing "all is crazy Hungarian stuff that I love" and that he would conclude the concert by playing selected Lyric Pieces by Edvard Grieg. Among the works scrapped from the evening: the pieces scrapped were the Bartók Sonata No.1 and three Études by György Ligeti, all diabolically difficult and too rarely performed.

So the concert ended with Grieg, with Mr. Berezovsky cherry-picking eight pretty pieces from his vast catalogue. These little single-movement works have cute titles like Dance of the Trolls, Solitude and Butterflies and were played with a great deal of charm and élan. He followed these wintry bonbons with a brief encore, two of the charming piano works from Tchaikovsky’s early cycle The Seasons, a Berezovsky favorite. It was a fine recital but its second half would have been a good deal less ordinary had he stuck to the program as planned.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.