By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Donald Berman is a thorough, exciting and persuasive musician, and his piano recital at
Merkin Hall last Tuesday night was memorable. His program consisted entirely of works by
Americans, from Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles through to present-day composers. None of
the music was familiar, and all of it was delivered with vitality. This was not music one
has lived with, but it may need to be there as one goes on through life.
Berman's Ives pieces were three of the studies. In Nos. 20 and 23 he was duly humorous and
engaging in the ragtime, but strong and resolute elsewhere, with luminous, neatly placed
chords that left no doubt as to why Ives needed to have so many notes in play. Everything
No. 6 was offered as the intervening slow movement, a vision of the hymn tune "Bethany"
against a watery background reminiscent of the same composer's "Housatonic at Stockbridge."
Because "Bethany," according to some reports, was being played by the Titanic's band as the
ship went down, one might have taken Ives's study as an elegy, but apparently it was written
before the ocean liner sank. Of Ruggles, Berman offered the first performances of two pieces his teacher, John Kirkpatrick,
worked up from the composer's sketchbooks: "Visions" and "Valse Lente." The first has the
authentic Rugglesian upward urge and sounds more
pianistic than the one earlier piano work
the composer allowed to be published, "Evocations." This opinion of "Evocations" might need
to be revised, however, in light of Berman's new recording, on a Composers Recordings disk
that also contains a large group of Ives's shorter pieces, including the three studies he
played in his concert. "Valse Lente" provides a reminder of how important Scriabin was to
American innovators of early this century.
As to American innovators of late this century, Berman put the whole weight of his musicality behind
excellent pieces by Dana Brayton, Jeff Nichols and Arthur Levering. Brayton's "A Little Traveling
Music" makes its quick journey up the keyboard with rhythmically tight ideas, somewhat suggestive
of Messiaen-style bird song from another planet.
Nichols's "Caracole" is a playful fantasy of turning gestures in intricate rhythms, with a lovely
close. Levering's "School of Velocity," also played by Berman on a new Composers Recordings album
of works by this composer, is a highly impressive set of studies, packed with musical energy and
testing the performer's ability to run off perfectly even downward chromatic scales or gauge
gradual crescendos and decrescendos on repeated notes. Berman excelled in all such opportunities,
to the music's benefit.