ONCE UPON A TIME, among the junior faculty of the Harvard Music Department, there was an extraordinary pianist. He was also a capable musicologist and an enthusiastic teacher, as well as a most amiable person. But under no circumstances was the ancient creed of the Department to be denied: music is to be seen, and not heard. The pianist, however extraordinary, was not given tenure.
Most fortunately for those of us who love the sound of music, Lawrence Berman has not changed his tune in the slightest. As Monday evening's concert demonstrated once again, he combines with consummate artistry the lucid insight of a musicologist, the precise execution of a virtuoso, and the upretentious sincerity of his personality, to recreate music for the piano in a very convincing way.
It is a mark of genuine musical integrity that an interpretation emerges organically from, and is always justified by, the immediate musical context--nothing is distorted or superimposed, and yet the performance is a vital and personal reading of the composer's work. Mr. Berman's playing embodies such integrity. One may disagree with certain aspects of his interpretations, as I occasionally did; but I felt, as I feel in the case of few other performers, that his conception was rarely in any way arbitrary. And perhaps even more praiseworthy was Mr. Berman's exceptional sensitivity to texture. Listening with score in hand, I was able to hear virtually every note functioning both harmonically and linearly within the fabric; and this aural perspicuity, once established, did not lapse even in the most delicate passages. Treated with such sensitive understanding, the works for piano solo presented Monday evening became intimate chamber music in the best sense.
The program opened with the Beethoven Sonata in B-flat, op. 22, in the beginning of which the performer's nervousness was noticeable. But by the time the exposition of the first movement was repeated, things were under control, and there followed a structurally clairvoyant performance, emphasizing both the subtle interrelationships and the marked contrasts inherent in the composer's material. In the second movement, I felt that so many gentle hesitations before sforzandi and cadences, in conjunction with a tempo leaning toward the slow side, tended to restrict the flow. However, these elements of rubato, although not to my taste, were part of a deliberate, introspective interpretation which never lacked coherence. The readings of the minuet and rondo were exemplary.
TWO CHOPIN Nocturnes followed, nos. 17 and 4. The former included many finely-shaped phrases--the enharmonic transition midway through the piece, for example. I objected only to the occasional blurring of the pulse by too much tempo rubato in sections containing extensively syncopated accompaniments. Nocturne 4 was treated with a delicate sense of balance; happily the contrasting con fuoco middle section was not overplayed.
The playing of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies (Nos. 12 and 17) was startling--without a trace of the vulgarity usually read into this composer's works. One might argue for a "grander" rendition of no. 12, although I was quite satisfied to hear, for once, the purely musical aspects of Liszt. The absence of ostentation was particularly appropriate in the more austere, tonally ambiguous seventeenth Rhapsody, in which it is evident, contrary to popular notion, what a serious composer Liszt often was.
The Bartok works which concluded the program provided perhaps the most satisfying listening of the evening, simply because one never hears Bartok performed so sympathetically. Dissonance, so much a matter of course in the composer's style, was treated as such, rather than as a means of jolting the listener. In these pieces (Improvisations, op. 20, and Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, from Book VI of the Mikrokosmos), as always, the clarity of texture and poetry of phrasing characteristic of Mr. Berman's playing brought forth all aspects of the music in a deliberate, well-balanced interpretation; and so precise was the technical execution that even the most complex rhythms were never unclear.
An extraordinary pianist indeed--as far removed from mere crowd-pleasing as he is from pedantry. Mr. Berman's is a musicianship which so naturally blends the elements of feeling and idea, that one can quite honestly say (in the words of the great George Szell): he thinks with his heart and feels with his mind. The Music Department may well lament their loss.