WORKS: Fantasies, Op. 116; Intermezzi, Op. 117; Klavierstücke, Op. 118
PERFORMER: Paul Berkowitz (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDE 84287
Repackagings aside, it’s surprising how unenthusiastically record companies tackled Brahms’s piano music last year, the centenary of his death. So praise to Meridian, which has in the Canadian Paul Berkowitz (a former pupil of Serkin) an artist who isn’t shy of taking on the kind of Classical repertoire traditionally the preserve of more internationally high-profile artists. Rightly so, for he has a voice, a musicality, a bigness of pianism distinctively his own.
Informed by a beautifully balanced sound and with bass underpinning as directionally focused as it is sensuously responsive, his Brahms – notwithstanding some untidy chording – is honest and unfussed. Wisely, in the interests of structural cohesion and rhythmic clarity, he resists over-indulging the texture, preferring to understate some of the subsidiary detail (the voicing of the closing Capriccio of Op. 116, the last page of Op. 117/1, the Op. 118 Romance, for example), to keep the incident flowing onwards – relating its event more to Brahms’s past than future. He also makes less of its angst (in contrast to the Russians and Eastern Europeans). For much of the time his relationship of tempo to harmonic change is finely tuned: only the E flat Intermezzo from Op. 117 seems restless, and the F major Romance from Op. 118 is slow (though the reprise is pensively eloquent).
Kovacevich’s indispensable lyricism and Lupu’s searching inward intensity tell us other things about Brahms’s twilight. But Berkowitz’s integrity is commanding, his stylistic authority convincing and his refusal merely to play the notes impressive. It makes you eager for the sonatas, variations and ballades. Ates Orga