Obituary: Lazar Berman

`Super-colossus' of the keyboard

LAZAR BERMAN was one of the titans of the keyboard, a pianist of such prodigious musicality and technique that other players spoke of him with awe: Emil Gilels, for example, himself one of the finest pianists of the last century, called him "the phenomenon of the music world". A critic for the Corriere della Sera in Milan labelled him a "super-colossus".

Berman's talent was obvious from his earliest years: he was only two when he began to study the piano with his mother, Anna Makhover, a product of the St Petersburg piano school that had also trained Rachmaninov - hearing trouble had forced her to give up playing and she poured her passion into her son. Lazar was all of three and a half when he became a student of Samary Savshinsky at the Leningrad Conservatoire.

Although he had already played in public at four, his real debut came at seven, in a concert for young performers at an All-Union Festival in Moscow; his family moved there when he was nine, when he enrolled in the class of the venerated teacher Alexander Goldenweiser, initially at the Central Children's School (playing a Mozart concerto with the Moscow Philharmonic when he was 10) and at the Conservatory from 1948.

There he studied also with Theodore Gutmann, with Sviatoslav Richter, Maria Yudina, Vladimir Softonitzky and Heinrich Neuhaus likewise proving powerful influences on his playing. "From Goldenweiser I learnt what it means to work on an original text," he said. "He was superlative on questions of authenticity . . . Sofronitzky brought me closer to the spirit of the music." After his graduation in 1953, he remained at the Conservatory as a postgraduate for a further four years.

Lazar Berman's international reputation began in 1951, when he won the prize of the World Youth and Student Festival in East Berlin. Russian musicians were hardly encouraged to establish careers outside the Iron Curtain, but the Soviet authorities were happy to send their most glittering stars to the West to conquer and return.

Thus in 1956 Berman made a sally to Brussels, where he took fifth prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition; in the same year he picked up third prize in the Franz Liszt competition in Budapest - where some observers compared his playing to that of Liszt himself.

The Soviets, with typical cynicism, were now happy to show off their prodigy and he was allowed a foreign tour, during the course of which he recorded the Beethoven "Appassionata" and Liszt B minor sonatas in London. But in 1959 the barriers came down again: Berman had made the mistake of marrying a foreigner - a Frenchwoman - and, although the marriage was short-lived, he was kept at home for a decade and a half. His first American tour came only in 1976. Having been known by rumour only, he was now received rapturously, the critics reaching for the kind of phrase that most musicians' agents can only dream of.

Berman had already made recordings considered classics by the cognoscenti, with two separate accounts of the complete Liszt Transcendental Studies set down in the Soviet Union in 1959 and 1963, the latter described by David Fanning in The New Grove Dictionary as "Liszt playing of extraordinary rhetorical grandeur and agility". In the late 1970s Berman became a regular visitor to the studio, his interpretations still holding their ground almost three decades later. Jed Distler, writing for the Classics Today website, hailed a recent reissue of Berman's 1977 account of Liszt Annees de Pelerinage in glowing terms:

As a technician, Berman is extraordinary in terms of sheer evenness, control, and rhythmic panache, yet he always channels his considerable craft toward musical ends. It's a relief, for example, to hear octave passages in "Orage", "Vallee d'Obermann", and the Dante Sonata shaped in sentence-like phrases rather than banged out. In turn, the Tarantella's repeated notes sound like quicksilver pearls rather than pellets.

Berman seemed set to carry the world before him when the Soviet system came down on him again: in 1980, banned American material was uncovered in his luggage. His tours came to an abrupt end, his contracts declared null and void. But the Soviet Union played its musicians capriciously: in 1988 he was declared an Honoured Artist of the RFSFR.

He finally left Russia in August 1990, initially to teach in Norway and Italy, settling at the end of the year in Imola, where he joined the staff of the Conservatory, and in 1994 he took Italian citizenship. In 1995 a guest professorship took him to the Musikhochschule in Weimar for two terms.

Until January 2004, when he announced his retirement from the concert platform on grounds of ill-health, Berman played and recorded tirelessly, releasing studio and live performances that soon built up a discography of considerable dimensions. His concerto recordings include fabled accounts of the Rachmaninov Third (with Leonard Bernstein) and Tchaikovsky First (Herbert von Karajan). In concert he appeared with some of the most prestigious conductors of the age, among them Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini and Karajan. He performed, too, in a duo with his son, the violinist Pavel Berman.

In an age obsessed with firework virtuosity Lazar Berman brought the requisite flawless technique - but one informed with a powerful Romantic urge. It was a deliberate reaction. "Today everything is so technical, so mechanical, that the heart has gone," he said:

For this reason one has to pay even more attention to how one records. Technical perfection has become everything. If there is a wrong note, you have to record it again. Now obviously there should be a high standard of performance but, after all, one can't be so technical in a live performance. There are mistakes then whether you like it or not. That's why I concentrate so much on the emotional aspect when making a record. I prefer to record something even 10 times, but always with emotional involvement. I am not interested in performing once or twice with hardly any mistakes if it means a lessening of emotional commitment.

His philosophy, he explained, was a balance between head and heart:

The ideal is to balance your emotions and the control you have over those emotions. One must not get carried away, but one, too, must not be cold or detached.

Berman enjoyed painting and collected art-books, drawing a link between colour in art and in performance.

Lazar Naumovich Berman, pianist: born Leningrad, Soviet Union 26 February 1930; three times married (one son); died Florence, Italy 6 February 2005.

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