New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – Yefim Bronfman plays Beethoven – world premiere of Anthony Cheung’s Lyra

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Anthony Cheung
Lyra [New York Philharmonic commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 11 June, 2014
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeFour days after closing its first Biennial Festival of new music, the New York Philharmonic returned to more familiar programming. With music director Alan Gilbert conducting, the orchestra presented the first of three programs featuring artist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman in Beethoven’s Piano Concertos. Later, he will be joined by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow (in his final Philharmonic concerts) and principal cellist Carter Brey for the Triple Concerto. This first program offered the First and Fourth Piano Concertos, along with Anthony Cheung’s Lyra, inspired by the G major Concerto.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario Acosta Yefim Bronfman is not a showy pianist but a thought-provoking artist with a commanding technique and a welcome ability to surprise. Long known for his grandeur and power in the Romantic repertoire, he can also be gently poetic. The First Piano Concerto was a perfect vehicle for Bronfman to display the many sides of his artistic temperament. The piece gives a few nods to Mozart and then charges forward in a self-willed style. Bronfman was elegant and playful in the keenly Mozartean first movement, exhibiting tremendous fluidity in Beethoven’s massive cadenza (one of three). His spacious approach to the contemplative Largo contrasted eloquently with the joyous and sparkling finale. This was a fresh and spontaneous reading with alert and spirited accompaniment from Gilbert and the Philharmonic.

After the orchestra re-assembled for the next piece, Gilbert announced Per Nørgård as winner of the 2014 Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. Nørgård, who was in the audience, will receive $200,000 and a commission for the Philharmonic. Accompanying Gilbert was Anthony Cheung, one of three beneficiaries of the first Kravis Prize, awarded in 2011 to Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) who chose to share his winnings with Cheung, Peter Eötvös and Franck Krawczyk – each of whom would write a work for the Philharmonic. In his remarks, the 32-year-old Cheung offered a few words about Lyra, inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and its slow-movement association with the Orpheus legend. The work’s title refers to the lyre of Orpheus and various Orphean moments in musical history, as well as to multiple lyres played in the music of other cultures, such as China, Turkey and West Africa. The instrumentation calls for a flute, an oboe and a clarinet each tuned a quarter-tone lower than the surrounding instruments.

The work opens with the harp strumming the same G major chord that opens Beethoven’s Concerto, and throughout the 19-minute constantly-shifting score the sound of the lyre is simulated by different instruments. The shimmering, dreamlike music makes numerous but fleeting allusions to Orpheus settings by composers over the past four centuries, including two brief recorded excerpts from operatic retellings of the myth by Monteverdi and Gluck. Gilbert and the Philharmonic responded beautifully to Cheung’s demands.

In Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto Bronfman gave a thoughtful and technically brilliant account, with characteristic touches of poetry and sophistication. The understated opening of the first movement was rendered with persuasive tenderness and was delicately lyrical throughout. In the unusually compressed ‘Orpheus’ Andante, the bold strings contrasted marvelously with Bronfman’s soft and delicate response, leading into an energetic finale which brought the work and its dialogue to a joyful, invigorating conclusion.

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