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Interpreting Pianistic Landmarks at Hotchkiss

Musical review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 11th, 2016

Boris Berman at Elfers Hall, Hotchkiss School

Boris Berman seized the opportunity to play both books of Claude Debussy’s Preludes (1910) to open the Hotchkiss Portals festival, which offers focus on piano performance. Unlike many performers who emphasizes the higher, more lyrical atmosphere of these twelve Debussy pieces, Berman emphasized the lower register, of which he is the undoubted master; this resulted in a heavier, more Russian mood of melancholy, but to be fair, Debussy often invokes the contrast of plunging pell-mell into the lower register, only to counter that movement with an elegant, single, upper register note. Berman’s clean-cut lower register harmonies sounded like it admitted more sorrow than would ever occur to a capering Frenchman, yet Debussy is the greatest pianistic genius since Chopin and Bill Evans. The exploration of lower bi-tonal chords without resolution remains a trait better understood in Russia than France. Berman nailed the melancholy of the 6th prelude (about a frozen landscape) and did quite well with the exquisite melodies of the 8th prelude, yet the 10th prelude was played much too fast, leaving little room for shadows cast.

Berman (whose beard makes him look like Debussy) played both Debussy books from memory, a feat that few American pianists could ever equal. While Italian and French traditions attempt to disguise work modestly; the Slavic tradition is not ashamed to show dirt under fingernails. Russian temperament often prefers long-range perspective (unlike the immediate gratification of Americans and Frenchmen); Berman brought such a perspective to the Preludes, which meant he highlighted the second book of Preludes over the first. He played the second book as the lighter, happier, more assured reply to Debussy’s own first book—most people admire the more elegant harmonies of the first book, and think the second book of Preludes to be merely an opportunistic sequel. Yet Berman presented the first book as apprentice hard work; the second book as more easily inclining to pleasure.

The second book of Preludes, composed between 1910 and 1913, are generally considered to be the height of Debussy’s compositions, although I think that his peak was reached in 1915 with his twelve Etudes, three years before his illness and death. Berman’s earnest interpretation, more scrupulously academic than casual, were a puzzle to some, yet the second dozen Preludes were performed with more lyrical elegance than the former. At the hands of many pianists, Debussy can become a postcard cliché; in the hands of Berman these pieces became vehicle riddles in the glow of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. There lurks a tendency of popular opinion that the semi-impressionism of Debussy operates as a sacred relic of an artistic movement, while Russians scoff at such an approach. Debussy’s Preludes resemble interior piano monologue. Berman’s melancholy versions appear to be current political commentary about the state of Russia, or reflect the inability of the Russian musical tradition to explore the ambiance of spontaneity. Instead of striving for the effect of fleeting impermanence in feelings, Berman appeared to dramatize consequences of asymmetric structure.

On Monday evening Luiz de Moura Castro delivered a fabulous program of Scarlatti, Bach, Liszt, and Chopin. Castro’s excerpt from Bach’s B-minor mass in memory of recently departed friends was deeply moving. His wife, Bridget de Moura Castro, joined him for a two-piano arrangement of Liszt’s Les Preludes where they soared in unison. Castro’s lively rendition of five Chopin Mazurkas brimmed with amiability, precision, and light. The audience applauded in ecstasy. Castro indulged the audience with three astonishing encores. 

Luiz de Moura Castro

The Hotchkiss Portals festival continues with Joesph Kalichstein on Wednesday evening, Oxana Yablonskya Thursday night, Fabio and Gisele Witkowski with Amernet String Quartet Saturday, Priya Mayadas on July 21, and the Grand Finale of young pianists from around the globe on July 23.