Certain conductors can sometimes fall prey to a notorious habit: they accelerate their pace with every new movement, striving to bump-up their speed and create an effect of unleashed impulsivity. What is much more scant is the performer who does the exact opposite, as appeared to be the approach of Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky throughout this recital at the Royal Festival Hall.

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

After an abrupt last-minute change of programme, Berezovsky launched into Beethoven’s simplistic Sonata No. 13 with a moderate, restrained approach. While the piece does not boast typically Beethovenian sudden modulations or portentous chords full of zeal, the lack of subtle differences between forte, piano and mf passages gave this performance a slumberous slant. Chromatic scales dissolved into each other without consideration for each other’s differences, the left-hand chords were not played with their needed ominous, encroaching piquancy, and tiny dainty notes lacked the prerequisite raindrop-like texture they should embody.

Eventually Berezovsky’s performance of the Sonata began to eclipse the necessary boldness of sparkling staccato chords in favour of a continuing hurriedness. This was prognostic of his treatment of the next set of pieces. While Berezovsky has performed Chopin inimitably in the past, at times these renditions implied that the juice had been squeezed out and the fruit was now parched. Many trills in Impromptu No. 1 were so fast as to be uncatchable. Consecutive chords jostled so quickly that they were as tenable as the rings of a bouncing spring. Berezovsky embarked on the two chords that famously unleash the Fantaisie-impromptu as though they had melded to become one. It was disheartening to hear – mostly because the race-car tempo of his treatment made the lugubrious and ever-mystical Chopin for the most part oblique.

The advent of Bartók’s Sonata invigorated Berezovsky’s instrument with a new spirit: that of a twisted spectre. Here the irregular tempi and abrupt, spasmodic chords were bold, unstraying and bereft of all shyness. The most surprising of them all had a petrified glare that led them to dash off in a hurrisome fear. In the jazzier, looser rhythmic choices of the second movement, Berezovsky started sketching on a fresh new pad of creativity. Some notes were dropped unceremoniously – as quickly as a passing vehicle snaps off a tree’s twig. It was unclear whether this was a deliberate part of his style or the result of a passionate engagement with tempo.

In an apparently unthematic layout of programming, Domenico Scarlatti followed Bartók. A highly conventional approach to Baroque works meant that the melodies of these sonatas came out with the predictable rhythms and tempi of ditties on children’s toy carousels. Again, so many notes were rushed that none of these three sonatas had the equipment to draw its own line in the sand.

Oddly enough Berezovsky’s transition into Stravinsky’s 1924 Sonata didn’t stray from this practice. This was sanitised Stravinsky; a politely restrained paradigm of the composer for the musically conservative. Dissonant chords were played so quickly it would have been easy to think they were harmonious.

This state of affairs swung its clock-hand one-hundred and eighty degrees when Berezovsky assumed control of the 3 Movements from Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka transcribed for piano. Here the glissandi and long trills were executed sublimely - with relish. Arduous pedal work infused chords with the blistering silver zig-zags that crack a cerulean night sky to signal a thunderstorm. At the same time the legend of the puppet Petrushka could be heard in those startlingly contrasting, innocuous echoes of teasing infantile melodies. The unusual battle between differentiating chords on the black and white keys was saliently presented as two colliding aesthetics in battle, with neither becoming the victor.

Once the speed of this concert had been distributed more evenly, Berezovsky offered an encore in the form of two of Grieg’s 4 Norwegian Dances. Here, at the close of the evening which he had appeared at times to zealously anticipate, his hands melted into a dreamy Romanticism. The left-hand chords provoked the right’s jerky anxiety. For the last dance his playing rode a gentle saddle and effused a bashful melancholy. One could imagine the light brisk waltz smiling cunningly from the corner of its own eye.

Finally, after a lengthy parachuting that had started speedily and slowed with its descent, the performer reached a compromise with tempi that accommodated solid artistry.