Arthur Berger began his career 50 years ago as a 12-tone composer, switched to a neoclassical style in the 1940s and returned to the serial system in the mid-1950s, after the death of Arnold Scho nberg. The two styles did not seem at all incompatible last night at the University of Maryland, when pianist Christopher Kies gave a recital devoted to Berger's music.
In tonal or atonal forms, Berger's piano works show a consistent personality from the 1933 "Two Episodes" to the 1981 "An Improvisation for A.C.," composed in honor of his friend Aaron Copland. Sometimes he sounds strikingly like Bach, and one composition has a bit of the tang of John Cage, but essentially Berger always sounds like Berger.
Whether he is using only seven notes or all 12, he has an acute sense of melodic line and a knack for combining melodies in a contrapuntal texture; rhythmic vitality, particularly in the repetition of small, tight rhythmic figures; refined taste; sound structural ideas; and a gift for clarity. What he most lacks is a penchant for compelling emotional communication. On the whole, his music might work better as part of a mixed program rather than as a whole evening's bill of fare.
He does give a pianist a thorough workout, with notes sometimes exploding all over the keyboard and many passages requiring an acute sense of timing, phrasing and balance. Kies, who has studied with Berger, gave what sounded like definitive performances and made the process seem almost effortless.
Two of the seven works on the program were particularly effective. The Four Two-Part Inventions (1948) push Berger's neoclassical style charmingly into neobaroque with a series of intricate dialogues for two hands. At the opposite extreme, his atonal Five Pieces for Piano (1969) use a superb variety of musical gestures in a coherent, fascinating form.