Philharmonia Orchestra/Lazarev – 14 December

Capriccio espagnol, Op.34
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
The Nutcracker, Op.71 (excerpts)

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 14 December, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Boris Berezovsky, with huge hands and long, gnarled fingers, shambles onto the platform looking ungainly – like Gerard Depardieu in “Jean de Florette”. Yet, this Russian, born in 1969, is a magnificent pianist.

The Rachmaninov was outstanding. Conductor and soloist – in stylish accord – gave us refinement, power and restraint appropriate to aristocracy equally at home with boxing gloves, rapiers and intense, intimate love-notes.

Under Lazarev, a brief pause between each variation and its successor gave audience, orchestra and soloist time to discern the elegant structure of the whole and delight in the novel character of each variant on Paganini’s famous theme. What a sublime contrast to Gergiev’s unremitting sludge with Slobodyanik and the Philharmonia last April!

Here, in the first ten variations, the rhythms were taut, masterful and thrusting; the ’Dies Irae’ No.7 was menacing and grotesque. Variation 11 was magical. Suddenly, the playing became delicate and graceful – a taut, gentle vibration recalling a glistening moonlit cobweb. The silvery mood prevailed, preparing us for when the melting variation 18 slid into our soundworld, unannounced – romantic and heartfelt, distanced and diaphanous. This intensely private emotion shimmered timelessly in the still air – a combination of passion and enchantment that was rare indeed.

The last variations – rumbustious and pulsating – head for a loud, resounding, triumphant close. Yet this ’big bow-wow’ stuff stops suddenly – leaving the pianist a cluster of apparently surplus notes to dispose of. Berezovsky took Rachmaninov to be tossing the bombast aside, with cultivation and perfunctorily – with a brief, wry, dismissive smile.

The basis of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol – incorporating an aborada, a gypsy song and a fandango – is a collection of songs and dances entitled “Echoes of Spain”. The music is far more Russian than Spanish. True, castanets do clack from time to time – reminders of the country we’re alleged to be visiting. Various instruments go under the spotlight: cadenzas give the music a glittering concertante feel. The violin solo from Maya Iwabuchi was arresting. Towards the end, the capriccio becomes hectic and loud, sounding all very exciting. The music isn’t – the playing was!

The strange selection of Nutcracker ’Scenes’ was made by Evgeny Mravinsky – padding! – highly professionally played though. It was for the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and the ethereal, vibrant tinkling of Tchaikovsky’s new-found toy – the celesta – that the audience acclaimed Lazarev so enthusiastically. He has an affinity with the light and airy – witness the spaciousness of his Rachmaninov today and, on 27 November, the sublime mystical wafting of his Scriabin. Vigour he can command aplenty, but not the sheen of Rimsky-Korsakov or the ardent blaze of Tchaikovsky.

Left, then, is the memory of that astounding, virtually unrepeatable “Pag Rhap”.

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