Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit
Reviewed: 31 January, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
In his later years Mahler had the advantage of leading two orchestras – the Vienna State Opera and subsequently the New York Philharmonic to try out his latest Symphony. Brahms was granted a similar opportunity when Hans von Bülow defected from the Wagnerians (with a very intimate reason for so doing) and threw his support to the Brahmsian camp. The conductor offered Brahms the use of his Meiningen Orchestra and the composer caught the next train. Employing his new forces as a giant Petridish, Brahms fleshed out his B-flat Piano Concerto and premiered it as soloist under von Bülow in November of 1881.
Brahms often thought symphonically even when writing works in other genres, such as chamber music. The Second Piano Concerto is a case in point. Not only are there four movements rather than the usual three, but the relationships between the individual movements and the structure of the work as a whole is unmistakably in symphonic form. A great performance should be of gargantuan import. Brahms enjoyed the reputation of being a forceful and dominant pianist and Yefim Bronfman fits the mold as aptly as any current keyboard artist can.
He projected a burly image of the Brahms bear, his intonations strident and powerful, his attacks deliberate and measured. This is a completely legitimate approach to the piece, however it clashed stylistically with Riccardo Muti’s lyrical, spun-gold string sound. Where Bronfman was solid, Muti was malleable. This was not a dispute on the order of Glenn Gould versus Leonard Bernstein in Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto, but reflected a schism nonetheless. Part of this philosophical divide is suggested by the composer himself, who constructs his Concerto with solo instrument taking on some of the development role traditionally left to the ensemble, but there was still a rather bipolar feel to this reading. Bronfman did not attack the arpeggiated material without the occasional error of omission, but overall was highly accurate. What impressed most was the gorgeous timbre of the orchestra. This was a good performance, even if maestro and pianist were at sixes and sevens.
Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony was not given a good performance … it was a great one. Tremendously exciting and dramatic, what truly came to the fore was the intensity of the aggregate sound. Muti has begun the process that he so famously engineered in Philadelphia, conditioning the strings to take them up a few notches, turning solid musicianship into exceptional enunciation. Upon his shockingly early retirement, Gould quipped that he just did not want to come to the concert hall every night to hear the horn player flub up. From the CSO the horns and the trumpets were impressively ear-catching throughout. Muti found just the right path to expose Schumann’s deeply-seated cry for help amidst the patina of nature worship – a rare but profound emergence of a staggering underlying emotion.
At present there is no orchestra in America with a more richly layered sound than the Chicago Symphony, nor one in better hands. Since Muti was the announced first choice of Zarin Mehta to replace Lorin Maazel as music director of our local band, New Yorkers are left to reflect what might have been.