Super-virtuoso pianist makes a splash



Esplanade Concert Hall/Wednesday 

The second recital of the Aureus Great Artists Series featured celebrated Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky, first prize winner of the 1990 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.

However, there was an 11th-hour programme change, with the more standard selection of Beethoven, Chopin, Bartok, Scarlatti and Stravinsky replaced by an all-Russian smorgasbord.

The music of Mily Balakirev rarely features in recitals, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear a suite comprising two Mazurkas, a nocturne and a scherzo from the leader of The Mighty Handful clique of Russian nationalist composers, who was also enamoured of Chopin.

Within minutes, Berezovsky, who has a hulking physique, showed why he is regarded a super-virtuoso among pianists.

That he could deliver huge splashy chords and the finest filigree within mere moments was admirable, but his enormous dynamic range was also achieved with seeming ease, minimum fuss and no histrionics.

Even the notorious Oriental fantasy, Islamey, was tossed off with searing pace, lightness and clarity that defied physics.

He is one of few who can play it under eight minutes, with a canny excision towards its coruscating end lopped off to comfortably hit the sub-seven mark.

Speed records do not apply to Anatol Liadov's exquisite miniatures, which Berezovsky treated like sparkling gems.

There was a gently rocking Barcarolle and lilting Mazurka, reliving Chopin and early Scriabin, and a bouquet of Preludes. This was distinguished by the Borodinesque melody of Op. 11 No. 1, the melancholy of which could not have been more Russian.

With neither a break nor fanfare, he seamlessly eased into five Preludes by Rachmaninov, closing with the popular E Flat Major and G Minor numbers (Op. 23 No. 6 and 5).

The alert listener would have noticed by now that Berezovsky had chopped and changed the programme, omitting certain listed pieces and adding new ones as he progressed.

It was anybody's guess what came next, but this serendipity was more enthralling than disorienting.

But there were no further surprises. The second half began with six Etudes by Scriabin.

Working from Op. 42 to Op. 65 and mirroring the composer's ascent from neurotic excitability into outright hysteria, the music became more frenzied in Berezovsky's hands.

The climax came in the volcanic spewings of Sonata No. 5, the so-called Poem Of Ecstasy.

Despite getting lost somewhere in its psychedelic ruminations, Berezovsky obeyed the cardinal law of concert pianists by not stopping, instead recovering and finishing in the most exulted of highs.

As if that were not enough, Stravinsky's fearsome Three Movements from Petrushka followed, further revealing Berezovsky's metier as a true keyboard colourist.

While not pin-point accurate, it was the rough-and-tumble of the Shrovetide Fair dances that truly mattered, with swathes of orchestral colour emanating from the keyboard like never before.

Its raucous conclusion raised a spontaneous standing ovation and three of Grieg's Lyric Pieces - conjuring a different sound world altogether - played as encores had exactly the same effect.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2018, with the headline 'Super-virtuoso pianist makes a splash'. Subscribe