Pianist Boris Berman proves himself by letting Brahms, Schoenberg speak for themselves

March 18

How refreshing to hear a concert performed by someone who doesn’t seem driven to say something new. Pianist Boris Berman, who chairs the piano division of the Yale School of Music, was at Catholic University’s Ward Hall on Monday evening with a mostly Brahms program, and he seemed content to focus on letting the music speak for itself. The program included all 20 of the assorted and vaguely labeled intermezzi, rhapsodies and capricciosos that make up the Brahms Op. 116, 117, 118 and 119 “Klavierstücke” (or piano pieces). Berman also threw in, as sort of palate-cleansers, Schoenberg’s six short, delicate Op. 16 pieces — altogether an elegant program elegantly played.

This was Brahms at his most Brahmsian, with melodies that floated effortlessly from the welter of intricate textures, triple and duple rhythms that rubbed up comfortably against each other, harmonies that slid almost imperceptibly between major and minor and timeless landscapes of passion and longing. The nuts and bolts that went into making all this happen included a broad repertoire of legato touches that ranged from the vocal silkiness of the middle section of the Op. 116, No. 6 Intermezzo to the more instrumental-sounding linearity of the spooky middle section of the rollicking Rhapsody that ended the Op. 119 set. There was the care Berman took to keep the bass in check, never letting it muddy the sonorities, and a rhythmic integrity he maintained that still allowed lines to flex and breathe.

Architecturally, Ward Hall may have all the charm of a gutted barn, but acoustically it is a terrific place to hear a piano recital. On Monday night, however, something backstage bumped around loudly throughout the second half of the concert. That Berman was able to keep the noise from affecting his performance testifies to a world-class power of concentration.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.


Boris Berman (Bob Handelman)

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