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May 10, 2010

Weekend in review (Part 2): Distinctive pianist Michael Berkovsky

In the midst of that quirky wind storm on Saturday, I breezed into the Baltimore Museum of Art to catch the first half of Michael Berkovsky's piano recital. Time very well spent.

Berkovsky's appearance was presented by the valuable Discovery Series of free events launched four years ago by the Shriver Hall Concert Series in conjunction with the BMA. The Russian-born pianist, a doctoral candidate at the Peabody Institute, was the 2008 winner of the Yale Gordon Competition at the conservatory. He stepped in on this occasion to sub for the 2009 winner of that competition, cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein, who had originally been scheduled, but was recovering from an injury (and was in the audience Saturday afternoon).

It's not surprising to encounter talented pianists, but it sure is fun to hear one who has something distinctive to say. (Better acoustics would have helped him say even more, I'd bet; the piano sounded rather muffled. I wonder if it would be better placed closer to the edge of the stage.)

I was taken with Berkovsky from the start in Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata. There were a few technical slips, but the playing generated effective suspense and tension right away. Then, the defining moment -- the two ghostly recitative passages toward the end of the first movement. Berkovsky sculpted them the way a really intuitive singer would phrase them, and that made all the difference. The effect was haunting and absorbing, and I felt certain then that this was no routine keyboard talent.

I was even more convinced when Berkovsky turned to

two Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs -- "Serenade" and "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel." His performances of these two pieces revealed remarkable sensitivity and color, a deep sense of the dramatic arc to each song, a natural application of rubato.

Where some performers concentrate on the Liszt side of these works, all those brilliant pianistic embellishments, Berkovsky zeroed in on the soul of Schubert that still inhabits the indelible melodies. And when the pianist turned to an all-Liszt score, "Vallee d'Obermann," he employed those same qualities to fashion quite a poetic experience. It's possible to get even more warmth, drama and scope out of this music (see Horowitz, V.), but Berkovsky revealed impressive technical and interpretive skills. I was sorry I had to slip away after that (pieces by Mozart and Gershwin were slated for the second half), but I hope I'll have another opportunity to hear him again before too long.

Meanwhile, to give you a taste of Berkovsky's talent, here he is in the concluding minutes of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, performed with the Peabody Symphony conducted by Leon Fleisher:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:42 AM | | Comments (1)


Agree with every word. It was a moving recital- rhapsody in blue which you missed in the 2nd half was superb!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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