New York Philharmonic/Salonen Premiere

Le tombeau de Couperin
Piano Concerto [World premiere performances]
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 2 February, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This New York Philharmonic concert brought one of the most interesting musical figures of today, composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, together with his great musical and personal friend, the pianist Yefim Bronfman, to premiere a new work written by Salonen especially for these performances and with the formidable talents of Bronfman in mind.

Salonen’s Piano Concerto, commissioned jointly by the New York Philharmonic, the BBC, Radio France and NDR Hamburg, and dedicated to Bronfman, is a brilliant, original, and introspective work. Perhaps more head than heart, but always accessible and certainly not dry, the piece is Salonen’s third concerto, following his Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra with a title taken from Kafka’s The Trial, “…auf den ersten blick und ohne zu wissen…” (1980), and his Cello Concerto, “Mania” (2000).

The Piano Concerto is in three movements and exhibits a highly flexible dynamic between the piano soloist and the ensemble. The first movement begins slowly and solemnly with dotted rhythms for strings, woodwinds, and percussion, until the piano enters, hesitant at first, then suddenly propelled by timpani beats into a faster, machine-like pattern. Throughout the piece, the piano zooms in and out, taking on different roles as the music progresses. Always the principal voice, the piano sometimes takes on the part of chamber player, performing as a duo partner with a solo instrument from the orchestra; at other times it is part of a tutti section for the whole orchestra, while at other points it carries on a dialogue with a particular section.

There are also many moments when the piano plays completely alone, as for example, in the second movement, which begins with a virtuosic cadenza. One by one the woodwinds and French horn join in and this leads into a section Salonen calls ‘Synthetic Music with Artificial Birds’, a passage that combines jazzy rhythms with Messiaen-inspired melodies. Later on in the movement, in ‘Synthetic Music with Artificial Birds II’, the bird-like harmonies appear again, but this time in the piano part. The third movement is a lively three-phase rondo, full of pulsating rhythms and long, leaping chords. All of the piano part is fiendishly difficult, but Bronfman played it with confidence, clarity and strength, conquering not only the tremendous technical difficulties but also the music’s wildly varying moods.

The orchestral score is also challenging, but under the leadership of Salonen, the Philharmonic players sounded remarkably assured and produced vivid orchestral colors in all three movements. The piece was a genuine crowd-pleaser. The Philharmonic audience gave it a long and enthusiastic ovation.

Salonen also conducted a wonderfully lucid account of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, during which the virtuosity of the Philharmonic musicians was a constant source of delight, the delicate oboe playing in particular. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was superbly played in Ravel’s incomparable orchestration and closed the evening’s program. The performance was strongly characterized with each of Mussorgsky’s episodes brought brilliantly to life. Memorable moments included the melancholy serenade of the solo saxophone in ‘The Old Castle’ and the impressive tuba solo by Alan Baer in ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’. The violins and woodwinds were also full of imaginative touches, but the most unforgettable moments in this performance were provided by the brass, from the opening promenade – superbly played by principal trumpet Philip Smith – to the thrillingly resplendent final climax.

The new concerto was the most important event on the program, but with three such splendidly conducted and played pieces, this whole concert was an exciting and unforgettable event.

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