Agnegram [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat, Op.10
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: 5 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Michael Tilson Thomas composed Agnegram for the 90th-birthday of San Francisco Symphony patron Agnes Albert. This skilfully constructed and fun piece, in which the name of the dedicatee is used as the basis for a ‘scale’ and its derivations, was played and conducted with accomplishment and a sense of humour. Agnegram, described by Tilson Thomas as a march for large orchestra, could just as easily be read as a loose Prelude and Passacaglia. There’s an introduction in which the sections of the orchestra are allowed to show off before a more solid theme emerges; this formal behaviour is subsequently ridiculed by the clownish antics of various instruments amid quacks and whistles, out of which emerges a series of overlapping entries building to a raucous climax. Jazzy and inventive, Agnegram proved the ideal ‘ear opener’ to the equally compact Prokofiev concerto.
This angular yet rhapsodic work found Yefim Bronfman’s sparkling, percussive tone prominent above the rather thick orchestral balance Tilson Thomas created. Bronfman also managed to bring out the work’s lyricism and curious languor, while his sonority (particularly in the cadenza) and incredible handling of the octave passages made the closing bars a real tour de force. This performance made Prokofiev sound like a Post-Modernist, laughing at the Romantic tradition while still indulging in many of its excesses.
This performance of Mahler’s First Symphony was very fine – superb, in fact, in terms of conducting and playing – but ultimately unsatisfying. Slickness and lack of depth were in evidence here. The first movement was beautifully judged, the orchestra fully responsive and the climax effortlessly achieved; in the second, the rustic soul was brought out to perfection in the lilt and brashness of the outer sections, maximising the wistfulness of the trio. The third movement’s cumulative irony and the fourth’s dazzling climaxes were certainly made manifest; however, theatricality and a lack of focus in the more introverted moments negated any overall effect of striving and final victory. The concert overall? Big on skill and excitement, small on profundity.