BORIS BEREZOVSKY

Losing his head on Rachmaninov

by Mariko Kato

Russian piano virtuoso Boris Berezovsky is on the phone and he’s very excited, though not as excited as he should be when he plays the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo this summer. There, Berezovsky will be performing Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30, a work he considers “infamous” because of its technical demands and beautiful melodies.

Heralded as the “true successor to the great Russian pianists of the past” (such as Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz) by British classical-music magazine Gramophone, Berezovsky is known for his formidable technique and powerful energy. He claims that such a well-known work must simply be made “as exciting as one can.”

For him, the most difficult aspect of performing this passionate, technically dazzling piece is not “to lose my head, to control my emotions and make sure I don’t go crazy.” He says this with an easy, confident laugh that suggests it won’t be a problem keeping his feelings under wraps. In any case, “it’s what the chef [the PMF Organizing Committee] recommended,” Berezovsky says with another laugh, and declares the piece as the perfect choice: “It’s one of my specialities.”

Another one of Berezovsky’s specialities — and an indication of his confident, easy-going nature —is his gambling, specifically playing cards at the casino, to which he devotes much of his spare time. “Recently, I won 21,000 euro [$28,000],” he says proudly. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Berezovsky’s formative years were spent more austerely. Born in Moscow in 1969, he studied at the Moscow Conservatoire under Eliso Virsaladze and was tutored privately by Alexander Satz. “The best thing I took away from the Soviet classical music education was my technical ability,” he says matter-of-factly.

Berezovsky virtually guaranteed a British fanbase for himself when he debuted at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1988, drawing rave reviews. That potential was confirmed in Moscow two years later when he won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition.

Berezovsky soon returned to Western Europe, spending a decade in London, where he indulged another personality quirk: a love for that venerable London institution, the black taxi cab. “I had my own just to drive around the city,” Berezovsky says.

He currently lives in Brussels with his second wife and 2-year-old son. (He has a daughter from his first marriage.) “It is essential for any artist to live elsewhere to widen their horizon,” he says, adding that he didn’t “feel any awkwardness in making the transition from communist Russia to Western Europe.”

Berezovsky now works regularly as a concerto soloist with the world’s top orchestras and renowned conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mikhail Pletnev. He is a regular visitor to Japan. For him, Japanese are “some of the most educated and sophisticated people in the world.”

Next month’s appearances as part of Pacific Music Festival will come only two months after playing at the large-scale “La Folle Journee au Japon” festival in Tokyo.

The Pacific Music Festival was founded by the late composer Leonard Bernstein in 1990, shortly before his death, and is similar in spirit to Tanglewood Music Festival, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays a series of concerts with up-and-coming artists. At PMF, promising young participants from around the world are selected through competitive auditions (this year, 130 musicians from 22 countries were selected from 1,374 applicants) to interpret traditional repertoire from all periods and countries.

Once they’ve been whittled down, the selected musicians train together during an intensive four-week course in July. They form ensembles specially for the festival, such as the PMF Orchestra, as well as string, wind and brass ensembles, and take center stage with established musicians. This year, in addition to Berezovsky, the list includes Italian conductor Riccardo Muti and maestro Andrey Boreyko, who will be backing his compatriot Berezovsky with the PMF Orchestra.

“We’ve been working on our eye contact,” says Berezovsky cheekily. “Which is easy, because he is very, very handsome.”

For the PMF concerts, Boreyko — known for his innovative approach to programming — will lead the orchestra in an all-Russian program featuring works by lesser-known Russian composer Anatol Liadov (1855-1914), including The Enchanted Lake Op.62. The concerts will finish with Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4 “Le poeme de l’extase.”

Berezovsky remains as ambitious about his future recording plans as he is excited about his next visit to the casino table. With a considerable number of records already under his belt, including the complete Beethoven Concertos, the complete Liszt Transcendental Studies and the notoriously difficult Godowsky-Chopin etudes, he next plans to record from the French repertoire.

“I really want to play Debussy and Messiaen. French music is a very attractive art which is fueled by the cult of the aesthetic,” he says, “which is something they share with the Japanese.”

Three of the best from Pacific Music Festival

Although those led by major guest conductor Riccardo Muti are sold out, there are many other concerts worth checking out at Pacific Music Festival.

Vintage Viennese

Section leaders of the world- famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra form ensembles especially for PMF to perform chamber music by composers celebrated in Vienna. The string quartet takes on the classical composers, playing Mozart’s “Prussian 1″ and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” while the woodwind ensemble goes romantic with Gounod, Dvorak and R. Strauss. Together they form the Viennese Ensemble to play Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B major Op.115 and Schubert’s Octet in F major D. 803.

String quartet, July 12, Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara (7 p.m., 1,000-4,000 yen yen); July 14, Muroranshi Bunka Center (6:30 p.m., 2,500 yen). Woodwind ensemble, July 13, Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara (6 p.m., 1,000-4,000 yen yen). The PMF Vienna Ensemble, July 14, Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara (7 p.m., 1,000-4,000 yen yen); July 16, Daiichi Seimei Hall, Tokyo (7 p.m., 3,000-5,000 yen yen).

Ensemble Sunday

Crowning “Ensemble Sunday” on July 15 is the chamber orchestra concert presented by members of the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra and the PMF Orchestra. They will perform Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major K.385 “Huffner” and more.

4:30 p.m.; Leonard Bernstein Memorial Stage Sapporo Art Park (1,000-2,000 yen yen).

Young virtuosos

On July 20, the festival gathers promising young virtuosos for the PMF Virtuosi Ensemble series. The impressive lineup consists of pianists and players on all four stringed instruments, as well as flute, oboe, bassoon and horn. The musicians will form various ensembles to perform some of the most technically challenging chamber works, including Brahms Horn Trio in E flat major Op. 40, Glinka Serenade on the theme of “Anna Bolena” by Donizetti and Poulenc’s Sextuor for Piano and Woodwinds.

6:30 p.m.; Tomakomai Shimin Kaikan, Tomakomai City, Hokkaido (500-3,000 yen).