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Very uneven performance in very poor sound!
am 18. Mai 2011
Oh, boy, what a majestic letdown this box set was! I am truly stupefied by the lavish praise accorded to this recording, for both artistically and sonically it is a nearly complete failure.
I will admit right away that I have long since been prejudiced to Lazar Berman, especially to his Liszt, especially to his celebrated recordings of the Transcendental Etudes which, though I have come to see some merit in them, I still think too fast and too insensitive. Be that as it may, I was quite ready to give Mr Berman, in addition to the benefit of doubt, as open and unbiased mind as I could. Being a passionate Lisztian, I think I can safely claim I did in fact do that. Strangely enough, Mr Berman's complete recording of 'Années de pèlerinage' greatly surpassed even the greatest prejudices I could have had.
To say that his performance is very uneven is indeed a gross understatement. Lazar Berman seems to have little idea of the decent tempi, to begin with. Occasionally he slows down so greatly, that the result is all but pure travesty. The most abominable example is 'Angelus' which is more than 10 minutes long (!), nearly twice as long as Leslie Howard's; it goes without saying that a meditative piece like that would benefit from slow tempo - but within a reason. Similarly, Berman's 'Sposalizio' goes way over what is reasonable in terms of slowness; he is even slower than the notoriously slow Jorge Bolet; then again, slow tempi in Bolet's hand create miracles Berman is obviously and painfully incapable of. The man may well be sincere, but such slow tempi in Berman's hands sound contrived and artificial to me, as if he deliberately tries to redeem himself for his shameful rushing of the Transcendentals in his youth. Speaking of tempi, Berman is fond of the other extremity too: the outer parts of his 'Tarantella' are ridiculously rushed. What is even worse is that Berman often forgets that the piano does have pedals; his playing regularly degenerates into percussive and wooden banging. Even Berman's legendary technical prowess seems to have taken a day off during the recording sessions. He is decently capable to pull off 'Orage' and the 'Tarantella' successfully, but he cannot hold a candle to the fiery renditions of Aldo Ciccolini. On the whole, Lazar Berman lacks either passion or poetry in his playing, or, most often, he lacks both.
To be fair to Lazar Berman, he does have several fine moments, particularly in 'La chapelle de Guillaume Tell' where, for once, he gets the slow tempo quite right and creates a fine interpretation or remarkable power. Likewise, his pretty fast tempo in 'Pastorale' sounds charming. At his best, in any of the other 24 pieces Lazar Berman is dependable but hardly recommendable; certainly, his performances here are not in the least 'definitive' or any kind of 'reference'. At his worst, which is unfortunately much more often the case, he is to my mind totally unlistenable.
To be absolutely fair to Lazar Berman, he is partly letdown by simply horrible sound. It beggars belief that this recording was made as late as 1977, for DG and in the Herkulessaal in Munich. The sound is flat, shallow and brittle, with harsh sounds in the high register and total lack of depth in the lower one. The quiet passages usually sound way too distant or muffled, the loud ones take you straight under the lid and all but knock you down. If DG had been capable of shame at all, they really should have been ashamed to have produced such crap of recording, ever. Very poor sound is an understatement indeed!
Lazar Berman's complete recording of 'Années de pèlerinage' is still worth having - at such a bargain price at least. It might - or might not - bear an occasional listening for an interesting touch here and there, only too seldom alas. But taken as a whole or piece by piece, Berman's mindless blend of banging and sleeping is hopelessly inferior to Aldo Ciccolini's passionate yet refined artistry as displayed in his splendid complete recording on EMI (in fabulous early stereo from 1961); even Leslie Howard on Hyperion (vols. 12, 39, 43), who is by no means without weak spots, puts Berman to shame in terms of musicianship and technique; I don't even want to mention Jorge Bolet's complete recordings of the first two 'years' made for DECCA in the 1980s: these are rarefied planes Berman never even dreamed of. Otherwise, the box set is beautifully produced, with a nice photo of Villa d'Este on the cover and a beautiful booklet with fine essays (the one in English is by Humprey Searle himself, apparently written for the original release in the 1970s) and several gorgeous black-and-white photos. Too bad that such finely presented box set of a great work so seldom recorded in its entirety should be such a great disappointment artistically as well as sonically.