Lazar Berman

Home front: arts at a distance

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the coronavirus crisis reshapes the world, culture shifts gears and our virtual and physical realities overlap

HOW IS SOCIAL DISTANCING WORKING IN YOUR CORNER OF THE WORLD? Are you out and about at all – one of the vital people in our food and delivery and public utility and medical-care systems, maybe, keeping things going through the crisis? Are you busily creating a makeshift world while you keep inside your home, bringing the outside in virtually, via emails and social media and radio and television and music downloads? Are you keeping a sense of the actual, physical territory of our lives that we take for granted until it’s not under our feet anymore?

It’s been five weeks since I’ve been anywhere but home, and my reality has shifted both very little and very much. I’ve been lucky. I have good shelter, and food, and I’m sharing space with close family (including one indispensable and highly entertaining cat). I work from home, anyway, so the adjustment hasn’t been nearly so abrupt as it has been for many people. I miss my afternoon coffee-shop breaks, and going out for conversations with writers or news sources, and real-time, face-to-face interaction with performing and visual art. But those things are small potatoes. I’ve been spared the horrors the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on so many.

The difference between the real and the virtual becomes stark when the real is taken away from us. The other day I was reading Out of Time: Mortality and the Old Masters, a particularly timely column in The New Yorker by the veteran art critic Peter Schjeldahl in which he ponders why “the art of what we term the Old Masters (has) so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries.” It’s an imaginative and provocative piece of writing, bound to raise a few hackles and also prompt a lot of nods of agreement. In it he comments on the real and the not-quite-real – “… the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online ‘virtual tours’ add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted.”

El Greco, “View of Toledo,” 1596-1600, oil on canvas, 47.8 x 42.8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

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Finding Tchaikovsky’s voice in his first piano concerto

In a long-ago lecture in Eugene, the legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman made his choice. Now you can listen and decide for yourself.


By JOSEPH ALBERT


Is there a “right” way for a performer to approach interpreting a classic musical score? And what if the score exists in more than one form, such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1? How do you even decide which version to perform? The legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman thought deeply about the question, and dared to venture beyond the usual response.

In February 1987 Berman made his second tour of the United States. He performed in four cities— New York, Eugene, and I think Los Angeles and Chicago.

The performance in Eugene was broadcast on National Public Radio from The Hult Center for the Performing Arts, using its recording capabilities for the simulcast.

I was in attendance at the Hult Center, and remember that the encore was a piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Turkish March from the Ruins of Athens. I was able to locate a newspaper announcement of the radio broadcast in the archive of Madison’s paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, as well as an announcement of the New York recital in The New York Times from which I refreshed my memory of the main program.

The recital program consisted of Liszt’s Dante Sonata, Mephisto Waltz, and Liszt transcriptions of a couple of Schubert songs, Ave Maria and The Forest King; six of Shostakovich’s Preludes from Op. 34; and Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Left: Tchaikovsky, Feb. 1, 1893, in Odessa. Photo: Vasily Czechowski / Wikimedia Commons. Right: Pianist Lazar Berman, ca. 1988. Photo: Eraevski / Wikimedia Commons

The next day, Mr. Berman gave a lecture (through an interpreter) at the University of Oregon. The topic was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. There are at least three known scores for the piece, the first one from 1875, a revision completed in 1879, and a final version in 1888. The final version from 1888 is the version that has almost exclusively been performed. There has been an assumption that Tchaikovsky was not fully satisfied with the work, and that the final version is the superior version, with the blessing of the composer.

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