Fate sometimes enjoys playing with irony and paradoxes: before he became the pianist who specialised in the music of the 20th Century in general and Prokofiev, Schnittke, Denisov, Schönberg and Stockhausen in particular, Boris Berman was the regular harpsichordist with the USSR's only ancient music ensemble. In 1973 the Soviet authorities permitted him to emigrate to Israel where he settled a few years before going to live in the USA, where he would start working intensively as an educator. A tireless traveller, he would pursue an international career in 50 countries across 6 continents, recording a huge number of albums and setting up two series of concerts with original programmes, Music Spectrum in Israel and Yale Music Spectrum as part of the Yale School of Music, where he is the director of the piano department.
Armed with nails and pliers, Boris Berman created a sensation at a concert in Dallas in 2017 when he played the 16 Sonatas interspersed by the 4 Interludes for a Prepared Piano by John Cage The critic noted with a smile that the result was not "disconcerting" but "strangely beautiful". It must be said that Berman is a fabulous technician in the tradition of many Russian pianists, taking in particular after his mentor, Lev Oborin. Among his many students, we may cite the young Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, whose career is taking great strides forward.
Boris Berman loves to record rare works and to defend the music of the 20th Century in which he so excels. The three pillars of his repertoire are the music of Prokofiev, all of whose music for solo piano and piano with orchestra he has recorded, Debussy, whose atmosphere, sparkling colours and air of mystery he especially admires, and Scriabin, whose esotericism fascinates him.
The great classics of the piano repertoire are thin on the ground in the discography of this pianist who can play anything he put his mind to. Getting off the beaten track of traditional programming has always been one of the constant preoccupations of this exceptional artist whose playing alternates between great power and infinitesimal nuance. His commitment to Prokofiev's music goes far beyond his own recordings and concerts: he has published a work dedicated to the Russian composer's piano sonatas, and has also brought out a new edition of his scores, based on manuscripts and first editions.
Apart from his activity in Yale, Boris Berman plays and teaches in Austria, Canada, China, the UK, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Israel and Russia. His last recording, which came out in November 2017, recorded in the prestigious wine-making estate of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, and edited by Le Palais des Dégustateurs, is given over to Debussy's Preludes. It confirms Boris Berman's special relationship with the French composer, which he plays with pleasure and poetry, with a full sound, far removed from cheap impressionism.
© François Hudry/QOBUZ/November 2017
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