Lazar Berman, a bear of a man whom The Times of London called ‘one of the last unabashed exponents of the Romantic tradition of Russian pianism’, was known for the power of his playing and for his prodigious technique, but was also capable of great delicacy at the keyboard. The core of his repertoire was the great Romantic and post-Romantic works, from Beethoven to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Emil Gilels referred to him as a ‘phenomenon of the musical world’. Eloquence presents his complete Deutsche Grammophon recordings over five titles.
The issue of his 1963 recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Études in the West created a sensation, and he sold out houses wherever he played. These successes led to his recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, beginning with the Tchaikovsky First Concerto with Herbert von Karajan. Berman said he liked to take a romantic approach to the classical repertoire and a classical approach to the romantic. When asked why he had suddenly changed his approach to the Tchaikovsky to a more lyrical one, Berman told Gramophone’s Alan Blyth, ‘Well, it wasn’t my choice but the composer’s: I used to play the piece as most pianists play it. Then I did a lot of research into how it had been interpreted in the composer’s own time. It changed my approach entirely.’ And speaking on the subject with High Fidelity’s Barry James, ‘I’ve changed my views about Tchaikovsky. I’ve dropped the bravura interpretation of the First Concerto. I’ve read a lot of his writings and I think I understand his soul. Tchaikovsky was not a pompous composer, but a lyricist. So that’s how I perform his First Concerto.’
The highly-regarded recording of the two Liszt Piano Concertos came a year after that of the Tchaikovsky, this time from Vienna and with Carlo Maria Giulini, who in turn was making his Deutsche Grammophon debut. Upon hearing Berman’s first solo recording for DG (Rachmaninov, Prokofiev), Herbert von Karajan allegedly re-scheduled a recording session with the Berlin Philharmonic in order to record Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Berman. These are the only three concertos Berman recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and now appear on a single album.
PIOTR ILYICH TCHIAKOVSKY
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Herbert von Karajan
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S.124
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S.125
Carlo Maria Giulini
Lazar Berman, piano
Executive Producers: Hans Hirsch, Magdalene Padberg (Tchaikovsky); Jobst Eberhardt (Liszt)
Recording Producers: Michel Glotz (Tchaikovsky); Werner Mayer (Liszt)
Balance Engineer: Günter Hermanns
Recording Locations: Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, November 1975 (Tchaikovsky); Simmeringer Hof, Vienna, Austria, June 1976 (Liszt)
‘his tremendous virtuosity is always put at the service of the music … Berman’s decorative passages are as delicate as you could imagine, never merely showy, while the strength of his playing is tremendous. He can scale his playing down to the most intimate mood, while the detail of textures is as clear as could be … Giulini gets the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to play as if it were the Philharmonic itself. DG’s recording is full, yet bright and clear, with an admirable balance between soloist and orchestra … deeply satisfying’ (Liszt) Gramophone
‘this magnificent reading of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor certainly confirms that here is a positive personality of the first order … Karajan conducts with an incandescent urgency to match the bravura of the pianist … in every way this is a big, commanding performance … Berman’s concern for detail and his meticulous scaling of dynamic down to jewelled pianissimo grips the attention through everything … a firm first choice for every taste with stellar names and brilliant recording quality’ (Tchaikovsky) Gramophone