Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2. Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Book 2.
: Nos. 1, 2, 4
Boris Berezovsky (pn); Dmitri Liss, cond; L’Oural PO
MIRARE 132 (61:00)
If memory serves, this is my first encounter with Boris Berezovsky as soloist in a concerto. Previous encounters have come through his work as a chamber player in one of my favorite versions of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio with Vadim Repin and Dmitri Yablonsky, and in a
stunning recording of Prokofiev’s violin sonatas, also with Repin.
Of several recent new recordings of both Brahms concertos, those of the No. 1 have been uniformly disappointing, while those of No. 2 have been considerably more successful. Some of the fault may lie with the composer, for the D-Minor opus became a concerto only after struggling to escape its birth pangs first as a symphony and then as a sonata for two pianos. As a result, it emerged as an elementally hybridized work that, magnificent as it is, poses a significant challenge when it comes to integrating the solo part into the orchestra. The B?-Concerto, though symphonic in dimensions, does not suffer from a similar identity crisis; it was conceived to be what it is.
It always amuses me the lengths to which program note writers will go to make history conform to some hypothesis they wish to advance. In this case, author Rodolphe Bruneau-Boulmier is intent upon painting Brahms’s Second Concerto, completed in 1881, as an afterword to the 19th-century concerto tradition, telling us that after the contributions of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt, writing concertos was no longer fashionable. He bolsters his argument by reminding us that Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler showed no interest in the genre. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, three things at least. First, limiting one’s list to just these composers—Chopin being the odd man out—reveals a very narrow German-centric worldview. Second, citing Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler as three composers who took no interest in the concerto genre is no more probative of anything than saying Brahms took no interest in opera. But third, and most absurd about Bruneau-Boulmier’s postulation, is how demonstrably false it is. Tchaikovsky was still revising his first concerto as late as 1888. Saint-Saëns’s popular “Egyptian” Concerto didn’t come until 1896. And while Mahler was working on his Symphony No. 5 in 1901–02, Rachmaninoff completed his second concerto, one of the greatest all-time hits. In fact, one need only sort through the 53 (so far) volumes of Hyperion’s “Romantic Piano Concerto” series—which apparently Bruneau-Boulmier didn’t—to find numerous examples of concertos in the grand 19th-century virtuoso tradition written around the same time as Brahms’s B?-Concerto and later.
What sets Brahms’s concerto apart from the crowd is not its vintage but its symphonic scope and its refusal to treat the solo part as a mere vehicle for virtuosic display. Seen and heard as a symphony-concerto, Berezovsky’s and Liss’s reading of the score is better at creating that fusion than a number of entries to come my way in recent times. Entries I’ve reviewed positively have been by Marc-André Hamelin with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (
30:3), Joshua Pierce, in a fantastic performance with Kirk Trevor and the Bohuslav Martin? Philharmonic (29:6), Emanuel Ax with Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (30:6), and still a favorite, Fleisher with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.
What took me totally by surprise when I trotted out Ax and Fleisher for comparison was Berezovsky’s and Liss’s house-on-fire tempos in all three movements. After years—decades actually—of slowing tempos in Brahms, the pendulum has finally swung back in the other direction. A brand-new release of Brahms’s violin concerto performed by Isabelle Faust, reviewed elsewhere, is suddenly one of the fastest on record since Milstein recorded it with Fistoulari in 1961. My review of Faust’s Brahms was very critical, but for reasons that had nothing to do with her tempos.
Berezovsky came not just as a shock but as a reality check. How could I reconcile touting Ax and Fleisher as my favorites in Brahms’s B?-Concerto and still extend preferential treatment to a newcomer of such contrarian tendencies? I mean we’re not talking here about trivial tempo differences. Look at the timings:
1st mvmt 2nd mvmt 3rd mvmt 4th mvmt
Fleisher (1962) 17:02 8:33 12:55 8:56
Ax (1997) 18:38 9:30 12:02 9:32
Berezovksy (2010) 15:52 8:08 9:53 8:00
To shave nearly three minutes off of Ax’s first movement is astonishing enough, but three minutes off of Fleisher’s Andante is proportionally even more astounding given the shorter overall duration of the movement. There’s an immediate impact to these differences that lends dramatic thrust and urgency to Berezovsky’s performance, spring-loads Brahms’s rhythmic scaffolding, and exerts tremendous control over the dialogue between piano and orchestra. Yet, for all their pressing forward, Berezovsky and Liss breathe together and find momentary sanctuaries of repose in Brahms’s rising and falling swells.
Truth be told, the first time I listened to it, the performance didn’t seem that fast to me because it felt intuitively right. It wasn’t until I began comparing it to the Fleisher and Ax that it dawned on me how slow they are in contrast. Brahms was highly circumspect when it came to metronome markings, although he seems to have indicated them in his personal performing scores. We know, however, from documented sources of the time that when playing his own works in public he opted for tempos that would surprise us today. Géza Anda, for example, in the notes to his Deutsche Grammophon recording of the concerto, wrote that if the composer’s metronome marking for the Allegro non troppo were observed, the movement would be over and done in 14 to 15 minutes.
Not even Berezovsky is that fast, but at 15:52, he comes closer to the mark than any other recording I have. But the point is it doesn’t sound rushed. The faster tempo even has a surprisingly salutary effect on the cello solo at the beginning of the third movement; at Fleisher’s and Ax’s slower tempo, it takes on a sentimentalized, melancholy character that’s replaced in Berezovsky’s performance by an easeful singing quality that takes into account the natural breathing and inflection of the human voice. The more I listen to this performance the more convinced I become that this is the way Brahms wanted it.
To the extent that the concerto offers the pianist no hair-raising cadenza or the kind of virtuosic display work typical of other 19th- and early 20th-century concertos, Berezovsky is able to demonstrate his technical command, which is considerable, in a spirited but not overly flashy Book 2 of Brahms’s Paganini Variations. That would have been bonus enough, but he closes with passionate playing, fiery or brooding as called for, in three of the composer’s popular
With this recording, Berezovsky and Liss, I believe, have set a new “normal” for Brahms’s Second Concerto that will stand as a bar for those contemplating a future run at the score. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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