That almighty Russian piano training! It’s akin to Olympic-level sports discipline that guarantees the gold.
Following in the footsteps of the great Russian pianists like Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, piano giant Boris Berezovsky blew into Budapest to perform “Rach 3” (vernacular for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor) with his astounding Olympic expertise at the Liszt Academy on Feb. 18 and 19. And what a mighty wind it was.
With the wonderful orchestra Concerto Budapest under the baton of András Keller, Berezovsky sailed through the knucklebuster like it was lunch — but a lunch chock full of musical nutrition that fed the senses as much as the appetite. With exceptionally brisk tempos, he and the orchestra flew through the dense and dramatic score with blissful fluidity and a level of fearlessness not meant for the faint of heart. Occasionally looking at the orchestra while he played, Berezovsky’s almost off-hand, yet powerful grip on the extravant nature of this late-romantic masterpiece flourished with spiralling energy throughout its three movements. Beginning with electrical sparks and ending with heartstopping fireworks, the performance of this concerto was an unforgettable experience.
However, there was a somewhat unusual factor. The grand piano was turned perpendicular to the audience and its lid removed. This provided both advantageous and adverse aspects, depending on where one sat in the Academy’s Grand Hall. This position is more typical for harpsichordists who simultaneously play and conduct a baroque ensemble. But in this case, Berezovsky was facing the audience, and the keyboard was totally hidden to the audience on the floor — only those seated behind the orchestra and under the organ console could see his hands.
Well, sight-lines in a concert matter less than what we hear, fortunately. And what we could hear was a blissfully blended sound-scape of orchestra and piano, but the piano was considerably less dominant than the normal front-and-center power position would have provided. The results gave us the ability to hear the many wonderful instrumental solos within the orchestra, even though it was a more subdued version of the concerto since the there was no lid to reflect the sound directly to the listeners. Everyone on stage was able to render a unusually equal-voiced texture that would have not been possible to achieve if the piano had been in the traditional position. In all the many performances of this piece that I’ve heard, this was the first one where I was able to hear the gorgeous (and gorgeously played) wind solos, several by principal oboist Gerda Rózsa, principal bassoonist Pál Bokor, and principal French horn Péter Lakatos.
Another visual factor was somewhat disconcerting. Berezovsky must have forgotten his tux or tails on Feb. 18. He appeared onstage in a rumpled blue business suit that unfortunately didn’t match the majesty of his playing. Perhaps concert attire protocol is the only weakness in the otherwise demanding Russian conservatory training system.
The second half of the program was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony (No.3), a rather odd fit after Rach 3, since it goes retrograde in time. But it’s simple marketing: ticket-buyers won’t walk out after the rock star leaves the stage as long as it’s something by Beethoven, the most popular composer ever, it seems. But Beethoven, especially in his two masterpieces that were dedicated to Napoleon — this symphony and his Piano Concerto No. 3 “Emperor” — pleases this listener to the core with his bold innovations during the latter part of the Classical Period, and which paved the way for future romantics like Rachmaninoff.
One of his many daring experiments is what he wrote for the French horns. Usually relegated to the back row and given barely audible oom-pah-pah duty, they instead get the spotlight with delicious solos, and in the “Eroica” a fantastic 4-horn hunting fanfare (marvelously delivered by Lakatos, Máté Hamar, Zsolt A. Koscis, and András Balogh). Thankfully, Keller realizes this as an asset rather than the brassy annoyance that some conductors feel it is, and allowed them to shine and thrill us throughout. Keller’s tempos in general were breakneck, but Concerto Budapest, which I rank in the top three of Budapest’s many orchestras, especially for its superior wind players, was brilliantly up to the task.