Con brio, Concert Overture for Orchestra
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [Revised Version]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Christoph von Dohnányi
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 13 January, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Christoph von Dohnányi’s two-week visit to the New York Philharmonic features both of Brahms’s piano concertos (shared between Yefim Bronfman and Radu Lupu) and symphonies by Schumann and Dvořák.
Con Brio, by Jörg Widmann (born 1973), was commissioned by Bavarian Radio to open a concert featuring Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The work is a homage to Beethoven, its title referring to the tempo markings in the finale of the Seventh and in the opening movement of the Eighth, and its instrumentation is identical to those works. This interesting piece was given an engaging reading by Dohnányi and the Philharmonic, its ties to the past heard concurrently with strikingly contemporary rhythmic patterns and harmonies. Every instrument in the orchestra is called upon to utilize unconventional methods of sound production. The winds produced pitch-less sounds and used double-tonguing and flutter-tonguing techniques, there were col legno and other unusual bowing effects by the strings, and the timpanist frequently struck parts of the drum other than the skin. Allusions (but not quotations) to Beethoven’s music pervade the work, although at times its mood seemed equally suggestive of the radical innovations of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, such as unusual and almost constantly changing metres, rapid-fire trumpet and woodwind passages, and numerous extended percussive effects, including a series of loud drumbeats near the end of the piece.
The performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in D minor was of the 1851 revision of what had started out a decade earlier as his Second Symphony. Only after the composer had published what we now know as his Second and Third (Rhenish) Symphonies did he return to and revise extensively his laid-aside score, the most significant changes being in the orchestration. In the slow introduction, the heavy, dense sonorities of the revision were apparent, and even after the lively principal theme emerged, the timbre remained rather dark. Harmonically distant outbursts from a trio of trombones after the exposition repeat only added a measure of gloom, but they returned to add nobility to the coda. The second movement opened rather more solemnly than Schumann’s title of ‘Romanza’ would imply, although it was brightened considerably by the ornamented violin solos, delicately performed by principal associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples. (Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow was one of a number of section principals not playing in this concert.)
The scherzo’s orchestration is also rather heavy, but the graceful trio, reminiscent of the violin solos in the preceding movement, provided a welcome change of mood not once, but twice. In a departure from usual symphonic practise, Schumann chose not to end the movement with the scherzo, but instead reprised the trio, which leads almost imperceptibly into a mysterious introduction to the last movement. Dohnányi managed these odd goings-on masterfully, beginning the finale softly and solemnly and then gradually building up tension, which was released with the appearance of the principal theme, as if sunlight had finally broken through after a prolonged overcast. From there to the dizzily swirling coda the orchestra took us on a joy-ride. This time, when the trombones issued ominous interjections they were not permitted to dampen proceedings, which continued with a delightful fugato passage, a majestic horn theme, and two dramatic accelerations of tempo leading to a brilliant finish in which the trombones played a prominent – and much more optimistic – role.
Following the interval, Yefim Bronfman gave a brilliant and delightful performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. Composed more than twenty years after the youthful and stormy First Piano Concerto, this work exudes charm and grace, yet it is not without forceful content. Bronfman’s precise and technically impeccable playing had plenty of power, but it was also imbued with a romanticism that emphasised the gentler aspects of the concerto’s character. Dohnányi was an ideal accompanist, often turning to be nearly eyeball-to-eyeball with Bronfman as they kept the orchestra and piano perfectly synchronized.
The opening Allegro non troppo began with Philip Myers’s beautifully intoned horn solo and Bronfman’s gentle response. The cadenza that followed was the first of many passages in which Bronfman displayed a dazzling technique, and his commanding playing held its own against the orchestra even in the most potent passages. He brought the first movement to a majestic close with a scale ascending over four octaves to an extended trill, resolving the harmonic tension with the orchestra in three dramatic final chords. The rollicking scherzo is marked Allegro appassionato, and Bronfman’s bravura playing imbued it with plenty of ardour. Dohnányi made the most of the movement’s fascinating counterpoint, drawing fine playing, particularly from the strings, to complement the piano. The movement came to a close with an intensity that matched the ending of the opening movement. Bronfman took romantic flight in the ravishingly beautiful Andante, in which the cello solos were performed rapturously by Carter Brey. Then, after only a moment’s pause, Bronfman gave the final Allegretto grazioso, with its catchy syncopations and Gypsy influences, a sparkling execution.