WASHINGTON -- One look at the size of the orchestra that waited for Boris Berezovsky to begin Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center on Sunday was enough to let one know that something unusual was about to happen.
The Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra, which had opened its program under music director Peter Feranec earlier with excerpts from the same composer's "Sleeping Beauty," had been reduced in size to a slender five double basses and six cellos from a beefy nine double basses and 12 cellos. An experienced listener knew he wasn't about to hear the world's most popular piano concerto in its customary assault-on-the-ears mode.
Inner details emerged
The performance the young Russian pianist gave would have been impossible with a full-size orchestra. It was refined, sensitive and filled with fantasy of the most delicate sort.
The first-movement cadenza, for example, had the yearning quality one associates with the dreamy cadenza of the Schumann Concerto. The Tchaikovsky's huge chords and double-octave runs, which usually sound like the Niagara Cataract, sounded in Berezovsky's hands as if they were woodland waterfalls. Inner details and voices, usually hidden, emerged in pristine clarity. Instead of sounding like a Formula 1 automobile race, Tchaikovsky's First actually resembled a classically proportioned concerto in direct descent from those of Mozart.
Berezovsky, who won first prize in Moscow's 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition with a traditionally thunderous performance of the
same concerto, was clearly after something that could be called original, even radical. But the deepest meaning of those adjectives suggests not what is wayward or deliberately willful but what searches for beginnings and roots. A genuinely radical interpretation is one that tries to let an audience hear what the composer originally intended. And that was Berezovsky's purpose.
Tchaikovsky's favorite composers were Mozart and Schumann. When the young Vassily Sapellnikov, the composer's favorite interpreter, asked Tchaikovsky's advice about performing the piece, he was told to "play it like the Schumann Concerto."
That's exactly what Berezovsky did in Sunday's lovely performance.
Even if one still prefers to hear the concerto performed in the traditional manner -- as it was in a broadcast a few weeks ago by Evgeny Kissin -- one still has to admire Berezovsky's imagination, daring and conviction. There hasn't been so refined, polished and thoughtful a Tchaikovsky First since the heyday of the English pianist Solomon.
Berezovsky received an understanding and cooperatively restrained accompaniment from Feranec and the orchestra.
In the "Sleeping Beauty" excerpts and in Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, the Bolshoi Symphony did not exhibit the smoothness and clarity of the best Western (or Russian) orchestras. But the strings had the dark sheen and the winds the piquant nasal sonority that make Russian orchestras stand out against the bland homogeneity of what is now international orchestral style.
Feranec, a towering young man with shoulder-length hair and a Byronic demeanor, gave an impassioned, cohesive performance of the Sibelius. He is clearly a conductor to watch.