Times Music Critic

Lazar Berman, the controversial Soviet pianist, returned to Ambassador Auditorium Thursday night after a seven-year absence for a glasnost -oriented standing ovation and for a wild demonstration of old-fashioned, ivory-thumping, stormy-and-stressful hyper-romantic bombast.

Well, one has to be fair. It wasn’t all bombast. He did play softly once in a while, and nicely, too.

He paid soulful attention to the somber rhetoric of Liszt’s “Sposalizio.” He cranked out the pious kitsch of Liszt’s resetting of the Schubert “Ave Maria"--an anachronism within the sacred portals of the Worldwide Church of God--with glitzy, ethereal flourishes.

He brought compelling wit, whimsy and muted sentiment to the delicate moments in Shostakovich’s Six Preludes, Opus 34.


There were passages in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the ultimate piece de resistance of the recital, when a semblance of introspection was unavoidable. In these passages, Berman rose--no, fell--tastefully to the intimate challenge.

No one can claim, however, that piano , much less pianissimo , is this pianist’s forte. He crashes. He bangs. He pounces. He thuds. He thunders.

In a day when pianists tend to be clean, efficient, restrained and impersonal, he stands as a rugged individualist.

He makes a mighty noise, usually with his foot stuck on the damper pedal. He ventures extreme tests of phrase- and tempo-stretching. He dashes through bravura flourishes, sometimes with good marksmanship, often with his fingers lunging at the cracks between the keys.


Some listeners find his playing excitingly unorthodox. Others call it grotesquely distorted. As of Thursday, count this listener among the others.

Berman devoted the first half of his program to Liszt. First, he mustered a raucous assault on “Apres une lecture du Dante.” This set the tone for a performance of the “Erlkoenig” transcription in which the pianist took even greater liberties with Schubert than the transcriber had. In the “Mephisto Waltz,” No. 1, one encountered much macabre hysteria, little diabolical accuracy.

Matters improved to a degree with Shostakovich and Mussorgsky after intermission, and after the resident piano-tuner applied hasty ministration to the beleaguered Steinway.

One had to admire Berman’s broad strokes, his heroic perspective, his splashy sense of color. Above all, one had to admire his willingness to take risks. One also had to regret his frequent loss of control.


A little pounding, even by a celebrated guest from Leningrad, can go a long, long way.