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Review: Yefim Bronfman Assails Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 With ‘Virtuosity and Finesse’

Yefim Bronfman

By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, December 28, 2017

The great Hungarian-born pianist Andras Schiff has described Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as “probably the single most difficult piece that I’ve ever played, and I usually end up with a keyboard covered by blood, literally.” Martha Argerich outright refuses to play it. Yet Yefim Bronfman, the burly, Soviet-born Israeli-American dynamo seemed to devour it whole on December 27th with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. This relentless piece, with its thundering tone clusters, blistering runs in double thirds, and capriciously accented figurations, makes my wrists hurt when I even just look at the sheet music. Bronfman, a bravura and muscular pianist, played it like it was written to his specifications. It’s not enough to just hammer one’s way through the piece, although that alone is a Herculean task; many passages must be delivered with shape and lyricism in addition to monstrous technique. Bronfman managed it with both virtuosity and finesse. The knuckle-breaking first-movement cadenza was particularly astonishing.

The piece is also demanding orchestrally, and as a feat of ensemble playing between soloist and orchestra. In this regard, it took a few minutes to settle in. The orchestral playing lacked sharp rhythmic definition in the opening passages, which, combined with Bronfman’s slight tendency to push the tempo, resulted in some unintentional blurriness. These issues, however, were quickly resolved, thanks in part to the authority of conductor Bramwell Tovey, and the bulk of the movement, including the galvanizing ending, was remarkably clean. The second movement opens and closes with a remarkable texture of slow-moving muted strings in stacks of open fifths. In between, there’s more bat-out-of-hell piano wizardry, amid an orchestration that sounds like Dorothy’s farmhouse is about to be lifted off the ground by a twister. These swirling, mystical passages are exquisitely Bartokian, and were masterfully rendered by Bronfman and the Philharmonic.

Ensemble only continued to get better—the last movement locked in with brilliant clarity, including electrifying interplay between the piano, timpani, and bass drum. Shortly before the end, Bartok throws in a lyrical, gently triadic interlude that is almost shocking in this driving context. Bronfman’s plaintive rendering of these sweetly arpeggiated chords was an oasis of shimmering sound just prior to the brilliant brass fanfare and the glittering, circus-like scamper to the finish. As an encore, Bronfman gave a superbly delicate rendering of Chopin’s Etude in E Major, enabling both himself and the audience to revel in the contrast with the sonic onslaught that had preceded it.

Bramwell Tovey conducting the New York Philharmonic; photo: David Cooper.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally a suite of connected piano sketches, is one of the great glories of the early twentieth century orchestral repertoire. Everyone loves it, and with good reason. Tovey, a frequent Philharmonic guest conductor who is popular with both audiences and orchestra members, led a performance that was exactly what one might expect from the Philharmonic, and I certainly don’t mean that to sound dismissive. Principal trumpeter Christopher Martin gave a brilliant, clarion rendering of the opening “Promenade,” joined by his colleagues in the gleaming, perfectly tuned Philharmonic brass section.  The “Gnome” featured ultra-vigorous strings and gnarly wind sonorities, plus an impressively synchronous tutti drive to the end of the movement. Lino Gomez and Liang Wang provided beautifully shaped solos on alto saxophone and oboe, respectively, in “The Old Castle,” alternating with gorgeous muted strings. The woodwinds in the “Tuileries” movement were clean and precise. The approach of the oxcart in “Bydlo” was thrillingly dramatic, thanks in part to a well-paced snare drum crescendo. The second theme of the “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” was intoxicatingly bubbly, and Martin’s trumpet playing was again dazzlingly precise in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” “The Marketplace at Limoges” was fleet, swooping, and clangorous, and the “Catacombs” featured edifice-like brass sonorities that penetrated resonantly. And, of course, nothing raises the roof like “The Great Gate of Kiev.” In other words, everything was perfectly in place, but only during the great blaring brass passage of “Baba Yaga” did I find the performance actually thrilling.  What I missed overall was any sort of illumination or enlightenment, some sort of fresh take on or subtle insight into a thrice-familiar piece. The absence of anything like this, however, did not detract at all from this fine rendering of Pictures, every minute of which was thoroughly enjoyable.

The curtain-raiser was Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture, whose skittering, fugal string passages made a perfect display for the considerable collective virtuosity of the Philharmonic strings in particular.  The precision of ensemble playing in a whiz-bang piece like this is palpably a matter of group pride. Tovey, who knew enough not to interfere with the immaculately interlocking passagework, brought his impressive musicianship to bear in the more melodic sections, creating carefully shaped phrases and gratifyingly contrasting dynamics.

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The New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, on December 27-30, 2017. Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano.

SMETANA The Bartered Bride Overture

BARTÓK  Piano Concerto No. 2

MUSORGSKY / ORCH. RAVEL  Pictures at an Exhibition

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Cover: Yefim Bronfman with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; courtesy of the New York Philharmonic.

 


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