Bargemusic leads New York reopening with Berman’s expressive recital

Sat May 15, 2021 at 1:57 pm
Donald Berman performed at Bargemusic Friday night.

Concert life is slowly returning to New York City, and the smaller venues are leading the way. Bargemusic is one of those, and this month they’re already close to a schedule one is familiar with, presenting concerts every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Violinist Mark Peskanov, who handles the programming, a year ago expressed his eagerness to have musicians play again, even outside on the roof. Once the state allowed reopening, even at limited capacity, Bargemusic was ready.

Friday night, the venue presented pianist Donald Berman in front of a small, masked crowd sitting in seats well distanced. One is still not accustomed to this arrangement, and even for one who has attended concerts for decades, recent, live classical concerts have an odd newness to them, as if one was at such an event for the first time. There is a tentativeness, a feeling that even the current circumstances will change, so things still seem a bit unsettled.

Berman opened with Bach, and closed with Brahms, while in between he played Ives and new and recent music from composers with whom he’s collaborated. The pianist too showed some tentativeness at the start. He told the audience that Bach had been a refuge in the past year, and also said Friday was his “first time playing live in a long time.” Playing the E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 852, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Berman sounded fine technically, but unsure of exactly what he wanted to do with the music. He pedaled off and on, stretched the tempo in various directions, but only sounded settled and certain at the final cadence of the Prelude.

The faster tempo and greater complexities of the fugue seemed to focus him, and this was a crisp, rhythmically sure performance that carried over into the E-flat minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 853. Here he used judicious rubato throughout, but the application was consistent and logical.

Berman’s Bach was very much on the expressionist side, using the voice leading and harmonic motion in the music to develop emotional excitement and impressions. The concert showed that as his core, with the remaining music mixing together harmonic, rhythmic, and formal complexity to describe abstract narratives and create impressions and representations of non-musical experiences.

The more abstract of these were Su Lian Tan’s “Portraits” from her The Other Pictures and Luiz Casteloes’ 6 Pop Themes, which was last on the formal program. The former was a New York premiere, the latter, Berman seemed surprised to admit, was the world premiere—he described a streaming performance yet to come, but apparently no audience had yet heard the piece. Tan’s piece had a brightness and structural slipperiness that were intriguing, and it moved from a Schubertian storminess to hints of a Terry Riley-style, lyrical repetitiveness. Dark chords alternated with bird-like trills.

Casteloes’ piece put together six pithy themes with roots in the styles of his native Brazil. Some of the rhythms were parsed and threshed from Brazilian music, some of the keyboard work emulated sounds like those of a doorbell, and one section had Berman plucking the interior strings. This was smart and sunny, and Berman handled the rhythmic challenges of both works with concentration and skill.

The pianist is the current president of the Charles Ives Society, and has been editing Ives’ piano music. That includes the Sonata No. 1 for Piano, which he has been re-assembling. He played the Adagio from this Sonata, which is far lesser known than the “Concord” Sonata, but full of the composer’s restless, free counterpoint, nostalgic lyricism, and haunting emotional ambiguity. As a pianist, Berman has long explored these works and his playing was natural, deep, balanced between turmoil and those gentle, still points that are one of Ives’ special qualities.

The Ives legacy continued through music from David Sanford and Marti Epstein, pieces Berman commissioned with the concept of making four responses to Ives via the greater extent of American Transcendentalism. 

Sanford’s Underground was about Harriet Tubman, and Epstein’s The Piano in the Palace Beautiful was after Luisa May Alcott, specifically a passage from Little Women where Beth goes to a piano lesson. These were the local premieres for both works, and under Berman’s hands they sounded fully lived-in. Sanford’s conception, alternating stillness with melodramatic action, came off as superficial, but Epstein’s balance of Ivesian musical memory via her own clear voice and intentions, chords floating in and out of hymn tunes with a sensation of spacious, vaulted architecture, had great appeal.

Tacked to the end, not exactly an encore but a welcome extra, Berman played a piano arrangement of “Herzlich tut mich verlangen,” from Brahms’ Op. 122 Choral Preludes. This was an expressive, moderate tempo performance that seemed to gather up all the loneliness and isolation of music in the past year, speak its name, and settle the soul for a better future.

Gerald Robbins plays Schubert’s Piano Sonatas in A Major and B-flat Major, 6 p.m. Saturday bargemusic.org


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