Boris Berezovsky began by announcing a change to the programme sequence (and not the only one of the evening). “In the first half I will play Scriabin, and Rachmaninov in the second half”. Given the relative popularity of these two figures this made more sense to many in the hall, to judge by the approval muttering level. So instead of Rachmaninov’s transcription of the dazzling Prelude to Bach’s third violin Partita – which in fact we were never to hear – we began very dreamily with the first of Scriabin’s Deux Poèmes Op.32, one of the composer’s characteristic lyrical quests for a theme he never quite captures. Berezovsky’s touch was exquisite, and perfectly judged for the instrument and the hall, while its more assertive successor gave a first hint, in some ff dissonances, of the dynamic range at his command. In the various other short Scriabin pieces with evocative titles, Fragilité, Désir and Caresse dansée, Berezovsky distilled the characteristic mood of each, which is quite an achievement when the musical atmosphere seems so evanescent.

Boris Berezovsky © David Crookes | Warner Classics
Boris Berezovsky
© David Crookes | Warner Classics

The Trois études, Op.65 presented no difficulty to the large hands of Berezovsky, not even the one in ninths (“How depraved!” joked the composer), with its relentless semiquaver runs. But he brought out the poetry in the music too, especially in the Allegretto of No.2. Among his many virtues, such as the range of trills he can deploy, this pianist has the secret of pedalling, (for which the composer’s playing was notable), in a way that seems to perfume those exotic harmonies in the smaller lyrical works. There were also some larger pieces on the programme. The Sonatas numbers 4 and 5, while not long, still give room to build the cumulative impact we associate with great Scriabin playing.

The Fifth Sonata announces Scriabin’s later manner, in having no key signature and being cast in a single movement. That movement does however have a sequence of different instructions for whenever the mood shifts, and such terms as ‘impetuous’, ‘extravagant’, ‘languid’, ‘caressing’ and’ tumultuously exalted’ give a sense of the kaleidoscopic changes the pianist has to respond to while still keeping a sense of the single journey implied by a sonata. “I call you to life, O mysterious forces,” opens Scriabin’s verse for the head of the score, and Berezovsky came as close to that dangerous ambition as any I have heard, on disc or in concert. The energy of the sonata was unstoppable, so those ‘languid’ and ‘caressing’ moments were fleeting indeed, but they were so deftly touched in, that they just made their mark before the tumult resumed. And what a tumult Berezovsky unleashed, from a whisper to a roar, of tireless invention seeking a repose that never comes. His ferocious intensity – perhaps the essential quality of temperament needed in playing this music – drove the music throughout. Had the piece been much longer, pianist, instrument, audience and hall would surely have been consumed by some Pentecostal fire. Which is more or less what the composer had in mind.

As the interval allowed us to confirm that the world had not in fact been transfigured, we returned for Rachmaninov and his Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor in which we can recognize a far greater rootedness, not only of harmony, but also of place. The first movement development erupts at one point in a peal of bells, a glorious carillon in which Berezovsky evoked all the steeples of Moscow. The opening section of the slow movement spoke of enchanted summer evenings in Rachmaninov’s estate at Ivanovka, and that nostalgia which, far from a lament for the Mother Russia the exile had lost, was written like almost all Rachmaninov, while he still lived there. The central climax was wonderfully paced and voiced, and the finale brought a virtuoso display that saw an Oxford audience abandon its normal decorum... and cheer.

Then Festival fun rather took over the recital. Berezovsky announced a couple of unprogrammed Rachmaninov miniatures “to calm us down”. Some of the listed Rachmaninov transcriptions followed, though not the Bach or Schubert items, then Godowsky’s arrangements of Chopin’s studies Op.10 Nos. 1 and 12 – for left hand alone (I am not making this up). But first, Berezovsky pointed out that there is an element of the circus about Godowsky’s work (“a better circus when I play them badly”). “Maybe I should play the originals first?” “Yes!” we chorused. But the second item bored him, so he broke off and turned to the hall, and gave a circular wave of his hand to suggest we knew how the rest went, and maybe it was time for some Godowsky. Bucket list item ticked off – we saw the Revolutionary Study played with the left hand only. But even better still, we had heard Boris Berezovsky play Scriabin.