Paul Berkowitz, pianist

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Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I began piano at a very early age, like most musicians – six years old in my case. My parents were encouraging, and later my second piano teacher, Dorothy Morton, of Montreal where I lived (she was also a Professor at McGill University where I later studied) encouraged me and arranged many opportunities (and some competitions) for me to perform. But when it came to pursuing a career in music, that is another matter. The life of a musician is so difficult and tenuous that the decision can only come from inside. I suppose I had many other opportunities, all of which would have been a “safer” path in life, so my father was very much against it. As I felt that to do anything else would feel like a sort of death, I stuck to my guns and changed my course of studies. My teacher accepted that. When a few years later, I was accepted by Rudolf Serkin to study with him at the Curtis Institute, that was a powerful validation.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Directly, these would be my teachers: Dorothy Morton, whom I mentioned, and Rudolf Serkin. Dorothy had a marvelous gift of being able to draw music out of anyone, and was particularly gifted at eliciting expressive, meaningful musical phrasing. Mr. Serkin was a very powerful presence who stressed utmost respect for the composer’s intentions and enforced great discipline, while mastering his own explosive responses to music: a sort of tightrope walker which he manifested in his own playing. He had the highest possible standards, of which one nearly always fell short (!). I think he became my musical conscience, in a sense, for which I owe him greatly. At the same time, he claimed not to believe in teaching and did not want to dictate an interpretation or solution to difficulties, leaving it to his students to figure things out. This was a very powerful example and a formative experience. I also had some lessons while at Curtis with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who had an angelic temperament and was very illuminating. In my first year at Curtis, I also met Richard Goode, who had graduated recently and came back at Mr. Serkin’s invitation to hear and counsel his current students. Richard became a close friend, and has been a wonderful example. Finally, when I first arrived in London at the age of 23, Jeremy Siepmann, who later became also a writer on music, became a friend and helped me greatly with his thoughtful, analytic approach to music.

Indirectly, in my youth discovering the Beethoven and Schubert recordings of Artur Schnabel were a revelation, and an influence in his devoted approach to the masterworks of the piano repertoire. And when I had the opportunity to “sit in” at a season of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont run by Mr. Serkin, hearing Pablo Casals in one of his last years there made a searing impression, both in his exciting conducting of most of the Beethoven symphonies, and in his Bach masterclasses: I will never forget the way he picked up his cello and demonstrated the opening of the Bach C-major Suite with incredible energy and musical fullness.

Tell us more about your two new CDs

The first is of both sets of Impromptus, and the second has the Moments Musicaux, the early ‘Grazer’ Fantasie, and the 3 Klavierstücke D946, which may have been intended as a third set of Impromptus in Schubert’s last year. These are the final volumes – Vols. 8 and 9 – of what has become a nine-volume cycle of Schubert Piano Works for Meridian Records that I started recording over 30 years ago: the first three volumes, of the last three Schubert sonatas, were released in 1987. (I actually recorded them in 1984.) Back then I was living in London and had just performed in 1984 a series of three recitals at Wigmore Hall featuring the last three sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. I had a sort of Cinderella moment when the founder of Meridian Records, John Shuttleworth, came backstage after the last recital and said “I would like to record you. What would you like to record?” After a gulp, I said “the three Schubert sonatas”. It almost got reduced to just one sonata plus a few short pieces due to limited access to the concert piano, which was suddenly restricted to one weekend. But I was able to finish that in the first, very long day, and recorded the other two sonatas the next day.

These recordings were very well-received, and I was able to go on to record the rest of the sonatas and Wanderer Fantasie in another five CDs over the 1990s. I didn’t, at that point, plan to record the Impromptus, simply because they’re not exactly in short supply, as so many pianists have recorded them. I did a Schumann recording and then more recently three Brahms CDs. But I have played the first set of Impromptus all my life (I learned them first when I was about 15), and never learned the second set, aside from no. 3 which I played once on the BBC and that’s all. So I became very keen to learn them: I think I probably now feel closest to that second set of Impromptus, D935, of all the works on the two CDs: it is a collection of intense and beautiful pieces, and similar in scope to one of the major sonatas, although it ends with a popular “Hungarian”-style , whirling dance-like movement. As I was getting it together, I realized that there were now just a few more major works of Schubert I hadn’t recorded, so a year later I came back and did those too. The Moments Musicaux are, like the Impromptus, among Schubert’s best-known works, while the other two are much less well known. The Grazer Fantasie was only discovered in 1969 in amongst some papers and compositions of a friend of Schubert’s in an old library in Austria. I remember reading about its discovery while I was a student and I went out and got it as soon as it was published. It is lighter, more salon-style than mature Schubert, but very lovely in its disparate sections. The 3 Klavierstücke are very beautiful, especially the second one which has a particularly fine second episode that feels the most essentially Schubertian to me, and ends with a rousing finale in the third piece.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Oh, that’s too hard! Among the Schubert sonatas recordings for Meridian, I still feel close to and pleased with the G major D894 and the big A minor D845, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, several of the Brahms piano pieces, maybe especially Op. 76, Op. 116 and 117, and the Brahms Variations record which was my latest until now. But I suppose I will always have a soft spot for the first recordings I made, of the last three sonatas of Schubert. This is partly why I have chosen to play all three – for my first time in a single concert – in my upcoming recital at St. John’s Smith Square on November 9, bringing my Schubert cycle full circle, so to speak.

Which particular works do you think you perform best, and how do you make your repertoire choices from season to season
When I was younger, I performed quite a wide repertoire, including a large proportion of the works of Chopin, most of the solo Bartok works, both Ravel concerti, etc. But in recent years I’ve focused more exclusively on the German/Austrian classical and romantic composers towards whom I’ve always been most drawn: Mozart, Beethoven. Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. A couple of years ago I decided on a major project: to learn the Beethoven ‘Diabelli’ Variations. This is an immense and very difficult work, just about an hour in length, and not often played, probably for those reasons: I think I had heard it performed live just twice in my life. I had also hardly ever sight-read it, for similar reasons. It really was like a brand new work for me, which I may not have experience to the same degree in a solo piano work since my teens or early twenties. It was very exciting to get to know and learn what was virtually a whole new world like this. This was the rare occasion when I devoted the whole of my recital to this one work, as I did not want to make an outsize program. It worked well.

Usually, I take what was almost the last advice I received from my teacher Rudolf Serkin: when devising a new recital program for a season, make it about half old (previously performed), half new. That way you are always learning new works while deepening your knowledge and understanding of works you have played before, and can rely on being familiar with about half the program already. I am making an exception this season with my “retrospective” of the last three Schubert sonatas, all of which I have played before, but not for several years nor all in the same program.

Thinking about the first question, I think that my feeling for Schubert, which I hope makes my performances among my better ones, is especially close paradoxically because I didn’t hear the sonatas performed much, or at all, while I was growing up. Back in those days, outside probably of London and New York, you didn’t see Schubert sonatas in concert programs much. Schnabel and Serkin must have been among the very few who included them, sometimes, in their programs, and I never heard them in Montreal. Schubert’s songs, the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, were about the extent of it. I remember one day when I was maybe 14 or so, coming upon a volume of Schubert sonatas on a friend’s piano, and being overcome by this wonderful music. I excitedly told my teacher about this and asked if I could learn one. She couldn’t imagine where I might have come upon them! Later that same year, at a music summer camp, I similarly came upon the B flat sonata for the first time on the piano of one of the teachers. Since that day I always wanted to learn it, but was always told I had to start with other, less ambitious works. Finally in my third year of study with Mr. Serkin, I began my long journey with the work.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

That would be Wigmore Hall, where I played numerous times during my London years. Its intimacy and warm acoustics make it my favorite hall in which both to play and hear recitals.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Well, I don’t like to preach. There are so many ways to learn. Sometimes the most talented young musicians are the most creative, to the extent that they will impose their own ideas too strongly on the works they play, to the extent of obscuring the composer’s. Occasionally they will even do this consciously in an effort to make a personal statement, what one might call the Glenn Gould fallacy. The creativity is very precious and should never be stamped out, as it is what makes music live and not dead. Perhaps our era is too concerned with correctness, leading to uniform, anodyne versions. Yet it is the responsibility of every musician to try their best to discover and to be true to the composer’s own intentions. There are always inflections so fine that that cannot be written in the score and that remain to be discovered and made actual in the moment by the performer. What I tell my students is that if they remain as true as they can be to what they believe the composer has intended, by that very dedication their interpretation and performance will be individual to them, but without artificial distortions – since everyone will have different conceptions of the composer’s intentions
even if they correspond more roughly to an informed common understanding.

 

 

Pianist Paul Berkowitz makes a return to London after 25 years to launch his new Schubert albums and perform Schubert’s last three sonatas at St. John’s Smith Square (9 November). In addition he will be giving a masterclass at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on 8 November.

Paul Berkowitz has an outstanding international performance career, having toured with great success in the U.S., Canada and Europe. A student of Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, Professor Berkowitz’ recent performances and recordings have focused on the piano music of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. A recording artist for Meridian Records, his discography includes a seven-volume CD set of the complete Schubert Piano Sonatas, as well as Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which was selected by the BBC Record Review as the best of all available recordings of the work. In 1993, Mr. Berkowitz joined the music faculty at UCSB, having been Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music in London since 1975.

His students have won prizes in many important competitions, including the Charles Heenen International Chamber Music Competition (the Netherlands), the BBC Young Musician of the Year, and the Young Concert Artist Auditions. Mr. Berkowitz has recorded the complete Piano Sonatas of Schubert for Meridian Records to worldwide acclaim, winning accolades for “Records of the Year” in the Sunday Times of London and the Los Angeles Times, as well as CDs of Schumann and Brahms.

 

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