MET Orchestra/James Levine at Carnegie Hall – Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique – Yefim Bronfman plays Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

The MET Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit

Reviewed: 17 May, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

James Levine leading the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in a concert on Sunday, May 19, 2013Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan OperaPetrushka started life as a piano concerto; Brahms began work on his eventual D minor Piano Concerto as a symphony. The same method that he later utilized for his Variations on a Theme of Haydn, scoring a proposed work for full orchestra first as a structure for two pianos, the young composer found that he could not get the sound of the keyboard out of his mind’s ear and molded the inchoate work into its final form, jettisoning a proposed rather foreboding section and later resurrecting it in the second movement of his German Requiem. Like so many great works in the history of music, the Concerto was not warmly received at first, the Leipzig audience hissing.

There was no hissing at Carnegie Hall as James Levine led his troops in a splendid performance. The sound was exceptional, multi-hued and complexly layered. Worthy of special mention were the ambuscades of threatening tutti passages. The Met opens again in the fall with a new Verdi Otello and already have that significant orchestral growl, so vital in the Verdi, under their collective belts. Of note was the playing of the second violins, whose melodic passages in the last movement were gorgeous. The audience does not see the maestro in the Met pit and for this Concerto he was once again out of sight as the open piano lid hid his chair from our view.

Yefim BronfmanPhotograph: Dario AcostaHowever, Yefim Bronfman could see Levine and had little excuse for ignoring his directions so often. Bronfman can play Brahms 1 in his sleep and seemed to be doing so, omitting more than a few notes and forging ahead with his own tempos. This rendition was quirky at best. Bronfman eschewed the theater inherent – although unwritten – in the score, refusing to employ even a hint of rubato which would have made some of his passages dramatic rather than automatic.

Although I have heard literally hundreds of performances of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, there has not been a single one wherein all five movements were performed expertly. If there is a great ‘ball’, then the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ is dull, or the ‘country scene’ might be sensitive, but the ‘March to the Scaffold’ is trite. It seems to be the nature of the work to be so varied in mood and harmonic language that a complete performance at a high level is virtually impossible.

Levine’s effort fit perfectly into this norm, as the opening section was exquisite, but the ‘ball’ was unexciting and painfully non-threatening. The ‘country scene’ was quite dull, but the day was saved (this is often the case) by a splendidly terrifying death-march (Kudos to Levine for employing military drums rather than the paler-sounding regulation) and a swirling gathering of the coven with a very exciting conclusion. An oddly sporadic concert on which to end the MET season, but one where pleasant memories can prevail with just a bit of internal discipline on the part of the listener.

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