Philharmonia Orchestra German Romantics II – 6 February

Siegfried Idyll
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 6 February, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Christoph von Dohnányi is cited for well-structured, even-tempered performances of Romantic repertoire, for interpretations where symphonic construction is never secondary to emotion, sentiment or heroism. This evening was no exception, and proved especially appropriate as the Brahms B flat is perhaps the most symphonic of all the major piano concertos.

Yefim Bronfman is famed for his technique, and in this respect he did not disappoint. Like a charging bull, his demonstration – of the first two movements in particular – was vigorous, athletic and muscular. He made light of the piece’s many difficulties and almost visibly bent the concerto to his will. His lyrical relaxation in dialogue with the solo ’cello in the slow movement, and the light pianissimo he achieved at the start of the Finale, also demonstrated this was not a one-dimensional rendition. Indeed, with the exception of a few fluffs in the first movement, it was close to impossible to fault Bronfman.

With staunch, thought-out support from Dohnányi and the Philharmonia (with the exception of an unfortunate horn call in the Scherzo), the conductor a perfect foil to the soloist’s assertiveness, why was this not an ideal performance?The whole, in some way, was not the equal of the parts. Whether because Bronfman was too locked in the beauty of his own sound and the perfection of his technique, or because Dohnányi’s characteristic refinement did not quite combine with the soloist’s aggression, the concerto lacked that last element of inspiration and communication that turns good into great.

Schumann’s orchestration is often criticised, and his lack of ease with large-scale forms remarked upon. This account of the Fourth Symphony (in the usual revised version) had coherence, integrity and no lack of richness. Dohnányi has been marked down for interpretations that are too repressed to be exciting. But here, whether in the first movement’s cat-like accelerations, the breadth of the ’Romanza’ or the sumptuous playing in the Scherzo and, especially, Trio, Dohnányi made the best possible case for Schumann the symphonist. Come the transition from Scherzo to Finale, hushed strings ushered in a moment of absolute stillness before the heroic endeavour of the Finale proper. A gentle, spacious, beautifully played and tellingly detailed Siegfried Idyll completed – or rather opened – the concert, Dohnányi’s reading an eloquent and rapt microcosm of Romantic music.

  • The German Romantic series concludes on 11 February
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