Plano — My trip to the new Kawai Piano Gallery in Plano last weekend was to hear a recital by the terrific Dallas-based Russian pianist Mikhail Berestnev. That he delivered a superb performance was not really a surprise, he always does; but the excellence of the new facility was quite surprising.
This is a beautiful performance hall with fine acoustics and a pair of Kawai concert grand pianos on a well-lit stage. Hopefully, there will be many more performances here.
Let me get my one criticism of the concert over before I begin the actual review. The program listed the selections but there weren’t any program notes to help the audience follow the selections and offer some guidance for listening. This is a very important part of a public performance and contributes to its success.
Berestnev sits relatively still at the keyboard, with an expression of serious concentration. In an era of flashy pianists, it was most welcome to watch a pianist whose demeanor is serious, without any of the distracting show that is so often the case.
The first half of the program was all music by J. S. Bach. As with all of the Baroque master’s music, it is contrapuntal and extremely difficult to play cleanly. Berestnev accomplished this with ease.
The first selection was his Partita in E minor BWV 830. This suite of seven pieces was originally written for harpsichord, an instrument without the ability of playing dynamics or the advantage of a sustaining pedal. Bach made it very clear that his keyboard music could be played on any keyboard, such as the organ or clavichord. The piano, invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the 18th century, was unknown to the composer although there are some sources that say he played on one of Cristofori’s creations.
So, the debate rages abut how to play Bach’s music on a modern piano. Some say it should be played as if you were playing a harpsichord: no use of the sustaining pedal and without dynamics. Those same purists discourage the use of modern-day rubato and think hat it should be played strictly. Others cry balderdash: Bach would have deserted the harpsichord in a flash for the expressive ability of a piano.
Berestnev’s approach was a fine compromise. First of all, his performance was clean and precise. However, he made sparing use of the sustaining pedal, sometimes depressing the pedal on each note. He also flavored the suite with some judicious and expressive rubato, without going overboard and giving it a full flowered romantic twist. In other words, it was just right.
His playing of Bach’s Chaconne was the highlight of the concert. Originally for unaccompanied violin, from his Violin Partita No. 2 in D-minor. The composer, conductor and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) adapted it for piano in 1893, turning it into a virtuoso extravaganza for a pianist with a sure technique.
Berestnev took full advantage of Busoni’s galactic re-envisioning of Bach’s work. Berestnev gave it Busoni’s full majesty and, at times, made the piano sound almost orchestral, such as calling forth a brass section in the part marked quasi tromboni.
The second half opened with a strange work, Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece (Notturno). Piano competitions usually have a newly written piece for the contestants to learn quickly and Britten wrote this for the 1963 Leeds Piano Competition. Usually such pieces are tests of virtuosity, but Britten wanted to present a challenge of musicality. This is not to say that it isn’t challenging, it certainly is. Berestnev brought out all of its subtly, concentrating on legato melodic lines and judicious pedaling. It was an evocative performance.
Berestnev ended with Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel by Brahms. Many consider this to be one of the masterpieces of the piano repertoire, and Brahms set out to deliver an answer to Wagner and Liszt’s concept of “music of the future.” Berestnev took Brahms at his word and gave a masterful performance of this intentional argument for the mastery of the music based on the music and forms of the past.
There was a consistency with the pianist’s earlier performance of Bach’s Chaconne, with real clarity in the complex fugue that ends the work. If there is a reservation about the performance, it is that there should be more difference in the performance of the separate variations. They tended to run together.
Overall, this was a wonderful performance in a new venue, something that we hope will be repeated soon.