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Put your pen away and have fun

By Rumwold Leigh
Friday, March 12
Boris Berezovski and Alexei Petrov at Tbilisi Conservatoire, March 4

If Russian business oligarch Boris Berezovski came to Tbilisi it would cause quite a commotion. The visit of pianists Boris Berezovski and Alexei Petrov did not create a clamour but was appreciated by the full house at the Conservatoire, there for the music rather than the occasion.

If Berezovski had been consciously named after a famous person it would have been Edmund Kean, the great Regency actor. Throughout his playing you feel that he is building himself up for the bravura parts, and sure enough he becomes more expansive at the critical points of the music. You get the impression that if Berezovski saw a flash of lightning he would run outside begging for the thunder and collapse screaming for joy when he heard it. It was therefore intriguing that he began the concert with Ravel's La Valse, an epitome of French melancholy. This was given a very aggressive and chromatic treatment, not what you would associate with a waltz, unless it was actually tapdanced by someone with impossibly shiny shoes. Despite this, his flurries of semiquavers seemed designed to obscure the line rather than clarify it, being treated, predictably, as the run up to the dramatic figures near the end of the work. Is this authentic Ravel style? Who cares! Berezovski was there to have fun, Ravel isn't around to argue, and the audience was happy enough.

Petrov followed with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody number 13, a piece seemingly more in Berezovski's line with its declamatory and egocentric machismo. In a big wink at the audience by both pianists this was played in a thoughtful and slightly ponderous way, as if it contained elements hard to explain which are missed by other pianists. On this hearing it does, too. Petrov made it appear that this reading of Liszt is rather more authentic than the traditional crash-bang-wallop approach, and given the context of the time, the world of Haydn, Hummel and Mozart before most pianos were made with iron frames, it probably is. This performance was also tonally precise, again not an element emphasised in most Liszt performances. This was one Russian who did not use excessive force in Georgia.

Berezovski then returned with Three Preludes by Rachmaninov. Hollywood Russian meets Hollywood Russian, a match made in heaven, and the pianist didn't disappoint. What these would be preludes to is hard to imagine, but a 200 piece orchestra playing a three hour symphony, probably written by Sorabji, would be one bet. Again this would inspire any budding virtuoso to think they can rule the world. Petrov then returned with some of his own compositions, one incongruously titled "Like a Flower at a Nuclear Power Station." These were a combination of naked aggression, with ultrafortissimo chords which reverberated long after the notes had gone, and measured but divergent melodies expressing the small response of modern man in a troubled world. Again the performance took the opposite turn to what you would expect as you went into the intermission.

In the second half the pianists performed together and their contrasting styles made them a fine duo. In fact the concert began to resemble an audition for a jazz label. They began with some of Bill Bolcom's contemporary ragtime compositions, which are more a manifesto for ragtime as "accidental classical" music in the style of Joplin. This performance included the pianists drumming on the piano with their hands to create certain effects, as if daring the audience not to respond, their attitude throughout. Gershwin's An American in Paris which followed was slightly disappointing by comparison, not seeming a logical development of ragtime music, and failed the "Graham Caskie Test" as it was played in a distinct twentieth century style set apart from the great tradition of music. The transcription they were working from also seemed unusual, the notes seeming to appear by proxy, but the bond between the two pianists was the focus of the piece and carried it beyond these limitations.

For the encore, repeated, the players switched pianos to perform a piece by Virginia Morley and Livingstone Gearheart called "Baby Boogie". It could equally have been called "Thanks for the Good Time Tbilisi". These two accomplished musicians had not come to make a point but enjoy themselves, and thus transmit their own delight in this music to the audience and play a few tricks along the way. This may offend some critics, but there are plenty of worse ways to give a concert, and plenty of worse performances around in consequence. Worth another hearing, methinks.