Lazar Berman (1930-2010)

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman died five years ago, in Florence, Italy, in April 2010
and this posting is in memory of a great pianist and human being.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 23 No. 4 on D Major
A favorite piece of his – and mine – uploaded April 11, 2010

It was September 1956, and I had just stepped off the plane in Budapest. A smiling lass carrying a poster with the name LEWIS AZIM writ large on it met me at the gate and introduced herself as Eva, who would be my constant guide and translator during my week in the Hungarian capital. As to my name – when I queried her during our ride in a Russian-built limo to the hotel – that it was the other way round, she explained that in Hungarian, the given name came after the surname. Since one of the people I’d be meeting would be the famous pianist Annie Fischer, I learnt that to all and sundry she was known and her name pronounced as fischerannie, which by the way did sound more mellifluous.

At the hotel, a competition official took over from Eva and completed all the necessary guest formalities at the reception desk. The room allotted to me was a large VIP single with enough spare room to put up a regiment of aspiring concert pianists, instead of a sole visitor from India.  Later, Eva escorted me to the restaurant: we sat down at a single table not far from a large baronial one seating a dozen or so young Russian men. One of them got up and came across to us and introduced himself in heavily accented English, with Eva helping out when translation was needed. That was my first meeting with the gregarious and bear-like Lazar, appropriately surnamed Berman.

In the days leading up to the finals, I had several opportunities of sitting in the practice sessions of the tight-knit Russian competitors, a few of whom were ensconced at either of the two grand pianos – flown over from Moscow and installed in separate rooms of their suite – for 12 hours a day. Clearly Team Russia was determined to take home more than just one medal. From the start, I was impressed by the remarkable octave technique on display – Lazar’s being paramount among the performers.

Altogether, there were 55 competitors from around the world: the non-Russians had allotted times at the many studios in the nearby Franz Liszt Music Conservatory; the concert hall there would be the center of activity for three whole days in front of a jury of world-renowned pianists including Annie Fischer and Moura Lympany plus some professors from leading European music conservatories outside Hungary.

Without giving a blow-by-blow account of the semi-finals (15 survivors including me) and finals (4 medalists including Lazar) the upshot was that the Russians and Hungarians took home 2 medals each. Incidentally, I was given a cash prize for the best performance of a ‘set piece’ that had to be performed by all competitors: my rendition of “Sunt lacrimae rerum” was widely praised, and Lazar was one of those who came up to me to laud my interpretation of this strangely wonderful late Lisztian work. An additional bonus was my introduction to Zoltán Kodály as pictured below:
Zoltan and AzimA non-musical happening was at the post-awards reception, when – with Eva at hand to explain the intricacies –  I mentioned to Lazar my interest in and practice of scientific hand-reading: unlike the much derided palmistry, I claimed that I was able to foretell his future with a fair degree of certainty. We repaired to an alcove in the ballroom, and after 10 minutes or so of closely examining first his right hand, then his left, I gave Lazar a fairly comprehensive reading that he made careful note of in his mind.

20 years later, after my family and I had moved permanently to the United States from India, I was responsible as an orchestra manager for signing up various soloists for the winter seasons. In that pursuit, one of the agents I contacted was Jacque Leiser, who was not only a well-known photographer but a resilient artist agent and impresario with a concentration on Soviet and East European musicians.

Jacque Leiser
I paid a visit to his New York office and he told me that, among other options, I might like to know about a dynamic star on the horizon – Lazar Berman! At the time, I was between jobs in Rochester, NY and Miami, FL, and settled on attending Lazar’s recital in New Jersey prior to his much anticipated one in New York City.

Lazar had certainly grown in stature musically – and physically, I might add! – when I saw him stride onto the stage and give a gripping, brilliant account of his favorite Liszt repertoire to a rapt audience. After the last of many encores he gave that evening, I went backstage to congratulate him, but was beaten to it by a horde of people who had already lined up to be the first to get him to autograph their programs.  Suddenly, he looked over their heads and saw me in the queue: without ado he charged toward me, grabbed me in a bear hug, and turning to the assembled crowd shouted in a stentorian voice: “ZEES EES ATSEEM! KHEE  told me my fortune twenty years ago and said I WEEL be FAMOUS – and I YAM!!” Everyone around us cheered heartily, and I was overwhelmed that after two decades – and half-a-world apart from our original meeting – Lazar still held my prophetic words in his memory.

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas



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