Monday, 24 November 2014

Review: Liszt - Années de pèlerinage - Lazar Berman - 1977, DG, 3CDs

Very uneven performance in very poor sound!

Oh, boy, what a majestic letdown this box-set was! I am truly stupefied by the lavish praise accorded to this recording, for both artistically and sonically it is a nearly complete failure.

I will admit right away that I have long since been prejudiced against Lazar Berman, especially against his Liszt, and especially against his celebrated 1963 recording of the Transcendental Studies which, though I have come to see some merit in it, I still think too fast and too insensitive. Be that as it may, I was quite ready to give Mr Berman as open and unbiased a mind as I could. Being a passionate Lisztian, I think I can safely claim that I did in fact do that. Strangely enough, Mr Berman’s complete recording of Années de pèlerinage greatly surpassed even the greatest prejudice I could have had.

To say that his performance is very uneven is indeed a gross understatement. Lazar Berman seems to have little idea of decent tempi, to begin with. Occasionally, he slows down so greatly that the result is all but pure travesty. The most abominable example is Angelus which is more than 10 minutes long (!), nearly twice longer than Leslie Howard’s version. It goes without saying that a meditative piece like this would benefit from slow tempo – but within reason. Similarly, Berman’s Sposalizio goes way beyond what is reasonable in terms of slowness; he is even slower than the notoriously slow Jorge Bolet; then again, when Bolet slows down he creates miracles Berman is generally, obviously and painfully incapable of. The man may well be sincere, but in his hands slow tempi drag on interminably. They sound contrived and artificial to me, as if he deliberately tries to redeem the shameful rushing of the Transcendental Studies in his youth. Last and least, Berman is fond of the other extremity too: the outer parts of his Tarantella are rather rushed.

What is even worse, however, is that Berman often forgets that the piano does have pedals. His playing regularly degenerates into percussive and wooden banging, as if he is sight-reading music to which he can respond in neither an intellectual nor an emotional way. It’s aurally offensive to hear some of the most poetic piano pieces ever written treated in this way. Au bord d’une source and the Tarantella are two especially painful examples. Even Berman’s legendary technical prowess seems to have taken a day off during the recording sessions. He is decently capable of pulling off Orage and the Tarantella, but he cannot hold a candle to the fiery renditions of Aldo Ciccolini. On the whole, the man lacks either passion or poetry in his playing; or, most often, he lacks both.

To be fair to Lazar Berman, he does have several fine moments, particularly in La chapelle de Guillaume Tell where, for once, he gets the slow tempo quite right and creates a fine interpretation or remarkable power. Likewise, his pretty fast tempo in Pastorale sounds charming. At his best in any of the other 24 pieces, Lazar Berman is dependable but hardly recommendable. Certainly, his performances are not in the least ''definitive'' or any kind of ''reference'' as gushing reviewers might tell you. At his worst, which is unfortunately much more often the case, he is to my mind totally unlistenable.

To be absolutely fair to Lazar Berman, he is greatly letdown by a simply horrible sound. It beggars belief that this recording was made as late as 1977, for DG and in the Herkulessaal in Munich. The sound is flat, shallow and brittle, with harsh high register and completely depthless bass. The quiet passages usually sound way too distant or muffled, the loud ones take you straight under the lid and all but knock you down. If DG had been capable of shame at all, they really should have been ashamed to have produced such crap of recording. Ever. Very poor sound is an understatement indeed!

In short, Lazar Berman’s complete recording of Années de pèlerinage is not worth having even at a great bargain price. It does have an interesting touch here and there, only too seldom alas, but it’s difficult to imagine why Lisztians should waste their time with it. Taken as a whole or piece by piece, Berman’s mindless blend of banging and sleeping is hopelessly inferior to Aldo Ciccolini’s passionate yet refined artistry as displayed in his splendid complete recording on EMI (in fabulous early stereo from 1961). Even the consistently dull Leslie Howard on Hyperion (vols. 12, 39, 43) puts Berman to shame in terms of musicianship and technique. I don’t even want to mention Jorge Bolet’s complete recordings of the first two “years” made for DECCA in 1982-83: these are rarefied planes Berman never even dreamed of. In terms of separate pieces, Kempff, Horowitz, Volodos
and Arrau, to name but a few, have left embarrassingly superior interpretations to Berman’s. And far better recorded, too!

Otherwise, the box set is beautifully produced, with a nice photo of Villa d'Este on the cover and a beautiful booklet with fine essays (the one in English is by Humprey Searle himself, apparently written for the original release in 1977) and several gorgeous black-and-white reproductions of relevant paintings. Too bad that such a finely presented box set of a great work so seldom recorded in its entirety should be such a great disappointment artistically as well as sonically. It’s a shame.

PS Tracklist and recording details from the booklet:

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