Paul Berkowitz plays Schubert’s Last Three Piano Sonatas D958-960 at St John’s Smith Square

Piano Sonata in C-minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960

Paul Berkowitz (piano)

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 9 November, 2017
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Paul BerkowitzPaul Berkowitz’s recorded Schubert cycle for Meridian has garnered largely favourable attention over the years, the recognition at least that here is an artist with a viable view, performance-wise, of the trickiest composer of the classical-romantic era.

This was a long, odd final trilogy homage unclear in mindset and variable in pianism. Schubert – tender, yearning, neurotic, sad, placating, angry, child-like, big-boned, infinitely complex – will trip you up when you least expect it. Flashbacks to another age apart (principally second-subject groups, the slow movements of the C-minor and B-flat Sonatas, the coda of the A-major’s Allegro), the stumbles started early. Berkowitz’s technique is fallible. His staccatos bumped, his octaves too often split, his chords were prone to smudging, his accompaniments spoke unevenly, his unisons inclined to stab percussively. Rather than articulate notes, he inclined to feather and gloss over them. I found his dynamics, too, relatively small-scale, even monochrome. His body language generally – tight arms, tensed shoulders, stubby fingers working hard – increasingly restricted freedom and fluidity. He telegraphed the puissance fences of this music, and skated through rather than across them. A Serkin-ish truculence saving the hour, they didn’t fall but they bruised.

Using the score more as necessity than aide memoire, he created an uneasy world hovering between cosy fireside illustration and seminar chat, never mind the wrong notes because, after all, this wasn’t a concert. Only, unfortunately, it was, however reduced the audience. Best overall was the simplicity, the lack of exaggeration he brought to Schubert’s more lyrical phrases and textures. He knows how to play pauses and ‘lean’ a reflective aside. And some fleeter episodes were purposefully pointed.

But in his more anxious moments, the many fluctuations of tempo, his inclination to broaden rather than dramatise progressions, he lost sight of the grander architecture, the oceanic currents, underpinning these late testaments. Beyond dutifully observing each, correcting errors, introducing new ones, he made unexpectedly little of the first movement exposition repeats, to such a degree that I wondered why he bothered to play them. Accumulating tedium, they added nothing to the psychological experience. At twenty-four minutes, the opening Moderato of the B-flat Sonata (muddled left-hand trills) was predictably held back – not, agreed, as measured as Richter nor as eccentrically sepulchral as Afanassiev (twenty-eight minutes plus) but evidently more pedestrian and less cogently argued than Berkowitz’s recording from the 1980s, when he was on the professorial staff of the Guildhall School. The ‘dance’ movements throughout proved muted and smoky, fragments of melodies remembered yet out of reach. The anguished climax of the A major’s weltschmerz Andantino (pages that have confused and caught out the best) lacked pain, placing and potency – though the subsequent right-hand triplet semiquavers of the reprise, astral candles dying in the gloaming, water-coloured a certain Schnabel-like regret.

Twilight music, twilight playing, lack of incisiveness summed up the evening. Curtained gloom, tamed demons (C-minor); hopes dashed behind cracked windows (A-major); strength sapped (B-flat). Berkowitz’s instrument – a bland Steinway, short on quality voicing or preparation, limited in bass depth or treble ring – didn’t help his cause.

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