By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Donald Berman is a robust, positive and persuasive pianist, a musician who knows his own
mind (and fingers). At Merkin Hall on March 3 he played music by composers born in a rather
small part of Central Europe during a period of two centuries, from Haydn to Gyorgy Ligeti
by way of Schubert and Kodaly. An American work in the middle of the program, Tamar
Diesendruck's "Sound Reasoning in the Tower of Babel" (1990), was not so much a contrast
as a corollary, stemming from the same tradition of integration and integrity.
Mr. Berman's own program notes encapsulated his thinking (and the effect of his playing)
with vigor and clarity. Of the first movement of Haydn's A flat Sonata, for instance, he
remarked, "Subtle alterations in direction and note density quickly shift the work from
poignancy to startlingness to wit." Criticism cannot do better.
The remark also pointed to larger qualities in Mr. Berman's playing. Changes in direction
- in the way a passage is moving, which often is largely a matter of
harmony - not only
change the destination but also
even create it. Schubert's D major Sonata was full of examples, in Mr. Berman's thrillingly
clear performance. In its first movement, espe-cially, he showed very explicitly how the same
idea keeps proceeding along different harmonic paths toward different goals, most of them
illusory or in some way insufficient. The inner movements, too, were constant journeys, and
the finale bounced with a folk-music spirit Mr. Berman had found earlier in the evening in
the works by Mr. Ligeti and Haydn.
His placing of Mr. Ligeti's "Cordes Vides" and "Fanfares," from the composer's first book
of Etudes (1985), between two pieces from Kodaly's Opus 3 was apt: elemental gestures and
intervals were shaking hands across a gap of three quarters of a century. "Fan-fares" also
gained from being jazzed a bit.
There were things Mr. Berman might want to do differently another time. His quiet ending
to the Schubert sonata, for instance, was perhaps too abrupt. But so much here was right.