By Jean-Charles Hoffelé
Some time ago, Boris Berman had recorded an album of Debussy for Chandos, played with a surprisingly full sound, sensual, songful, and colorful. Images, Pour le piano, the animated Epigraphes antiques, and then nothing else, at least by Debussy.
We had to wait until the centenary for a French producer to offer a distant sequel to that first album: nothing less than all of the Préludes, but also the Estampes and four short pieces, including the sublime “Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon” rediscovered not long ago.
Berman plays the Préludes as a collection of secrets. His piano, formerly so opulent, has transformed its magnificence into mysteriousness, the complex harmonies saturate the deep touch, the piano resonates like an orchestra, surpassing the limitations of the instrument. Unparalleled, the two books are played with the same atmosphere of a passionate search for a new sonorous world, and as soon as Debussy rises the pitch, Berman responds by producing a dimension of gripping panic, whether it is in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest or Feux d’artifice. What piano! So ample and so little French in the tone, in the way of playing, that it reminds us to what extent Boris Berman, student of Lev Oborin, is linked to a certain tradition of interpreting Debussy, which includes the illustrious Neuhaus, Richter, Gilels, Vedernikov or Alexei Lubimov to whom he is often so close.
And his Estampes? Everything except impressionistic: Pagodes is a gamelan in which one hears dry tones, a percussive landscape; La soirée dans Grenade is very passionate, almost sexual; and Jardins sous la pluie abstract, a singular line. Add a very free gesture for D’un cahier d’esquisses, a comtemplative Hommage à Haydn, a little headstone lost in heather, and La plus que lente that does not let up. Boris Berman now owes us the Etudes, the fire of his piano is destined for them.