The Russian pianist, Lazar Naumovich Berman [Russian: Лазарь Наумович Берман, Lasari Naumovič Berman] was born to Jewish parents in Leningrad. His mother, Anna Makhover, had played the piano herself until ear problems stopped her. She introduced the boy to the piano, and he entered his first competition at the age of 3, and recorded a W.A. Mozart fantasia and a mazurka that he had composed himself at the age of 7, before he could even read music. Emil Gilels described him as a "phenomenon of the musical world". When Lazar was 9, the family moved to Moscow so that he could study with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Conservatoire, as well as with Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Sofronitsky and Maria Yudina. The next year he made his formal debut playing W.A. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1941, students, pupils and parents were evacuated to Kuibichev, a village on the Volga, because of World War II. Living conditions were so poor that his mother had to cut the fingers from a pair of gloves to allow him to continue to practise without freezing his hands.
Lazar Berman subsequently began to acquire a small international visibility. At the age of 12 he played Franz Liszt's La Campanella to a British audience over the radio; in 1956 he won a prize at the Queen Elizabeth Music Competition in Belgium, with Vladimir Ashkenazy; and in 1958, he performed in London and recorded for Saga records.
Although Lazar Berman was known to international music aficionados who had heard the occasional recording on the Russian Melodiya record label, as well as those who visited the Soviet Union, he was not generally well known outside Russia before his 1975 American tour, organised by the impresario Jacques Leiser. His New York debut at the 92 Street Y, where he played F. Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, was a lightning bolt of a sensation. Before that, he had been generally restricted to the Soviet concert circuit, playing on old and decrepit pianos to audiences of varied degrees of interest. Invitations to tour outside the Soviet Union were ignored by the Soviet state concert agency, Gosconcert. He lived in a tiny two room apartment in Moscow, with a grand piano occupying an entire room. But after his 1975 tour, he was immediately in great demand, with Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, and CBS vying to record him. He recorded the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Herbert von Karajan, as well as broadcasting it on international television with Antal Doráti, to mark United Nations Day in 1976. Most of his British appearances came in the late 1970's and early 1980's. In December 1976, he performed music by Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt at the Royal Festival Hall, in 1978 he played F. Liszt's A major concerto with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Symphony Orchestra, and in 1984 he played Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto with Sir John Pritchard at the Proms.
The Soviet authorities even then intermittently restricted Lazar Berman's international travels; in 1980 his scheduled appearance at the Llandaff Festival had to be cancelled. It was at that time when after a trip to the West, American literature banned in the Soviet Union was found in his luggage by the KGB watchdogs. As the result, his name was black-listed, and his career was black-flagged by the Soviet authorities. His being Jewish only aggravated the issue (In the Soviet Union, Jews were considered potential dissidents and subjects to flee the country.) The frequency of this interference declined, however, as the Soviet Union entered the last phase of its existence, and he finally left Russia for Italy in 1990, settling in Florence in 1995.
Lazar Berman's playing showed great technical brilliance, showmanship, emotional and physical force. He had the endurance to play three concertos or sonatas in one night, and was considered a brilliant interpreter of Franz Liszt, winning the 1977 Franz Liszt Prize in Hungary for his interpretation of the Transcendental Studies. He once described the driving forces of his style as being lyricism, clarity and virtuosity. He refused to play Frédéric Chopin, explaining "Of course I used to play him, but many years ago I entered for a Chopin competition in Warsaw and I did not qualify. It was a tremendous blow to my pride, and I vowed that I would never play him again." His playing of F. Chopin, however, is well documented, in both a concert film and a DGG recording of the polonaises from the 1970's.
He was survived by his wife Valentina, also a pianist, whom he married in 1961, and their only son, the talented violinist and conductor Pavel Berman. Recently, his memoires were published in German and in Russian. They are titled "The Years of Peregrination. A Musician's Reverie".