Christoph von Dohnányi 80th-Birthday Concert [Mendelssohn, Brahms and Yefim Bronfman]

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 October, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph von DohnányiIt’s strange how some concert programmes work out. For a ‘birthday bash’ one might imagine that pieces would be chosen to allow as many members of an orchestra to take part, rather than the more-or-less classical forces required on this Brahms-centric occasion; and a big piano concerto seems to lose focus on the man being celebrated (looking no older than 70!) and that’s before one remembers that it was the same line-up in this work just over two years ago! Still, the LSO managed something similar in June when Colin Davis notched up fifty years with that band: a Mozart symphony and this very concerto (with Nelson Freire) meant that quite a few members of the LSO were anywhere but the Barbican Centre.

But we got what we were offered by the Philharmonia – and very good it was too.

The Mendelssohn developed into quite an epic performance, largely because everything was made so significant, a flowing and cultured account, vivid, dynamic (in every sense) and tellingly detailed, whether in the calm before the storm, the tempest itself or in Mark van de Wiel’s eloquent clarinet solo (which had to compete with a high-pitched whistle, presumably from someone’s hearing-aid, which also intruded the symphony, and joined with the ill-timed sneezing, coughing and paper- and baggage-rustling that a few in the audience indulged in throughout the evening!).

Christoph von Dohnányi conducted Brahms 3 with a spring in its step, unforced, anything but autumnal (dismissing the epithet usually assigned to this work), classical, elegant, the work of a 50-year-old composer striding forth purposefully, sometimes reflecting on past achievements, but not resting on laurels. Such virile conducting belied Dohnányi’s octogenarian status (the birthday itself was on 8 September) but moments for tenderness were not overlooked, no more than valiant striving was underplayed; a performance (possibly destined for Signum Records – Brahms 2 & 4 from Dohnányi, SIGCD132, is very recommendable) notable for the mapping-in of heroism and contemplation to the work’s taut (but not inflexible) whole.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario AcostaNigel Black launched the concerto with a fine horn solo (matching those in the symphony), Yefim Bronfman displaying his impeccable technique, which even became hedonistic as he took-on Brahms’s elaborate demands head-on and won; which is not to deny his delicacy, warmth, sparkle and collaboration, or Dohnányi’s sympathetic and meticulous support, and numerous other distinguished orchestral solos, notably from Karen Stephenson (cello) – thanks to Dohnányi’s use of antiphonal violins, she was positioned adjacent to the pianist (just as Brahms surely expected) – and Christopher Cowie (oboe), both serenely soulful in the slow movement.

An evening of central repertoire given core-value performances.

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