William Berry – a “young lion of the keyboard” at St.Andrew’s


(In preparation for the National Piano Competition 2022)

  • performing the following three 30-minute programmes:

Programme 1: Scriabin – Trois Etudes op. 65 Beethoven – Sonata in E major op. 109 Albeniz – Triana William Berry – On Edge

Programme 2: Haydn – Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32 Rachmaninoff – Sonata in Bb minor op. 36

Programme 3: Carl Vine – Sonata 1 Chopin – Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61

St-Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 30th January, 2022

I was invited to attend this concert merely as a listener rather than as a reviewer; but the playing of eighteen year-old William Berry, a finalist in last year’s National Competition, calls, I think, for some comment by way of appreciation of what I consider to be the young performer’s tremendous talent. The competition he’s about to take part in stipulates two thirty-minute programmes of music chosen by the pianist – so one presumes Berry will either perform two of the three thirty-minute sequences of works he presented to us this afternoon, or else rearrange the items into the desired framework, depending upon which he thought came off best in performance.

Looking at the three different programmes presented by the pianist, I thought they each provided a judiciously-balanced range of repertoire which allowed him to demonstrate his capabilities to their best advantage. The first programme began with Scriabin’s Trois Etudes Op.65, the opening study all fantasy and vertiginous impulse, featuring in particular beautifully-feathery right-handed work, the whole balancing mercurial whimsy against both abandonment and circumspect inwardness. This was followed by a long-breathed meditation, one whose notes for the most part resembled exquisite stalactite-like progressions, though the latent energies flickered tantalisingly a couple of times before returning to the piece’s essential quietitude. As for the third etude , Berry breathtakingly set the opening fleet-fingered figurations against the heavier, more insistent shouts which eventually won the day with a spectacular ascending flourish at the piece’s end.

In its own way the world of Beethoven’s Op.109 E major Sonata sounded as distinctive as Scriabin’s, the evocations of each of the movements as singular and “from the air” as those of the Russian master we heard, written almost a century later. Berry gave the opening movement the free space that both the first flowing notes and the contrasting expansive rejoiners themselves suggested, impulses which alchemically made firstly poetry and then grandeur out of motion. While I thought he risked taking the swagger out of  the march-like second movement by taking it all a shade too fast, the rushing torrent that the playing evoked suited the work’s free-spirited aspect as admirably. I was sorry the repeats in the “theme and variations” were not observed, as I felt we seemed to move more quixotically than ecstatically through some of the movement’s treasurable mood-changes (I particularly wanted to hear again that wonderful “delayed modulation” sequence in one of the variations, but had to be content with this more-than-usually austere view of things, if beautifully played. But Berry made amends with his heartfelt treatment of the contrast between the “trills” sequences and the return of the movement’s quietly ecstatic chordal opening at the sonata’s end.

How thrilling to hear a piece from Albeniz’s Iberia , the colourful and evocative Triana, with its distinctive flamenco rhythms and textures characteristic of gypsy music. Berry warmed to this music from its deceptively dainty beginnings, investing the sequences with increasing textural and colouristic girth, and arriving at the piece’s middle section with considerable relish, the trajectories readily inviting the “big tune” to dance, Berry’s sure-fingered playing beautifully augmenting the textures with all kinds of tactile harmonic clusters that distinctively and irresistibly flavour the music.

We heard one of Berry’s own compositions to conclude this part of the programme, a short but hair-raising piece entitled On Edge. The music opened flowingly at first, before entangling its lines in what seemed claustrophobic fashion, with figurations shouldering one another aside as fresh impulses sprang forth, the whole gathering itself up into a scherzando section of considerable brilliance and excitement.

A Haydn Sonata (Hob.XVI:32 in B Minor) proved an excellent choice to begin the second thirty-minute section of the recital – the opening music was delivered with wit, point and schwung, giving the dynamic and textural contrasts proper dramatic life, especially in the movement’s second subject. The composer didn’t disappoint with his development sequence, enabling us to enjoy as much as did the soloist the garrulity of the repeated figures and their burgeoning interactions. And what a heartwarming homecoming here under Berry’s fingers to conclude the movement!

An attractive Menuetto was gracefully and winsomely brought into play, the opening contrasting startlingly with a middle section that seemed to fancy itself as some kind of feisty toccata for a few measures, before returning abashedly to its former manner. Continuing its litany of surprises, the work’s finale then straightaway began a kind of “cat-and-mouse” fugue, one which drew upon ever-burgeoning reserves of energy to produce a brilliant effect via Berry’s scintillating fingerwork, ideas shouldering one another aside with freshly-wrought impulses, before surprising us all at the work’s conclusion with a nicely-timed throwaway ending!

Because of Berry’s boldly-conceived programming, I enjoyed the juxtapositioning of Haydn’s and Rachmaninov’s treatment of sonata form in this segment of the concert as much as anything I heard this afternoon. Here we were able to experience a no-holds-barred arch-romantic approach to a traditionally classical format made to work from ”within” as effectively, for me, as did Haydn’s in its own context. Interestingly, Berry chose to perform Rachmaninov’s 1913 “original” version of a work he was to extensively revise in 1931 – regarding the revision, the composer himself wrote: – “I look at some of my earlier works and see how much there is that is superfluous. Even in this Sonata so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is so long. Chopin’s Sonata lasts nineteen minutes and all has been said……” To this day pianists and commentators argue whether Rachmaninov’s alterations to the work are to its advantage, whether they eliminate unnecessary material and tighten up the structure, or whether they are a mutilation which upset the work’s formal balance and thematic argument.

My own feeling is that the first two movements are superb in their original versions, but the finale doesn’t for me sustain its overall level of creative flow to the same extent, relying over much on a certain rhetorical flamboyance which requires white heat in performance to really make work. Most astonishingly, William Berry’s passionate commitment to the cause carried us all away, riveting  our sensibilities and leaving us imbued with the music’s fervour of expression and its composer’s unique sense of a world in the turmoil of change. I loved the slow movement’s long-breathed resonances here, Rachmaninov personalising his deep identification with the ambiences he loved, those of ritual, song and music simply in the air of his native land.

The one piece across the three programmes which for me didn’t quite “fire” was in the last group, and the very last work Berry played in the concert proper, Chopin’s enigmatic Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61 – his reading here seemed almost too fluently-propelled to my ears, smoothing out some of the music’s rhythmic girth which connects with its native earth vis-à-vis the dance, and as such leaving a somewhat under-characterised impression.  I wondered whether the Chopin’s proximity to Berry’s brilliant performance of Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 1  (part of which I had previously reviewed in a concert more than a year ago – https://middle-c.org/2020/09/wellington-entrants-shape-up-for-the-national-junior-piano-competition-finals/) had resulted in the former’s more circumspect manner being somewhat over-galvanised in the slipstream of such brilliance, coruscation and crackling voltage as evoked by Vine in his Sonata and realised here by the performer.

To tumultuous applause Berry took his final bow, then returned to play us an encore, characteristically, something off the beaten track and filled with interest – it was a piece of Nikolai Medtner’s, one of his numerous skazka (translated; “fairy tales”) this one Op.20 No. 1. It wasn’t something I knew, but the piece sounded very like Rachmaninov (he and Medtner were contemporaries)……it made for a satisfying and sonorous conclusion to a wide-ranging recital.

I feel certain that everybody present would want to wish William Berry all the best in his forthcoming competition – judging by the no-holds-barred aspect of his playing for us throughout the afternoon he seems sufficiently fired up so as to give it all his best shot.


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