Philharmonia Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev – The Hebrides & Enigma Variations – Yefim Bronfman plays Beethoven

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

You can stumble across a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto every day – and probably several times within one – so, that we got his preferable Piano Concerto No.3 instead of the advertised ‘royal’ work was something of a bonus!

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario AcostaIt was a rather superb performance, too, the first movement responding well to Yefim Bronfman’s somewhat severe style. Tugan Sokhiev had led off with a plain-speaking introduction, not quite dark enough but full of intent and promise, and he and the Philharmonia Orchestra were tactful and tactile throughout. Bronfman entered with appropriate brusqueness and was then alive to shape and searching. Sensitive woodwinds helped things along, not least Amy Harman’s likably outspoken bassoon. Overall there was an unforced approach that drew you into the musical argument and the shadowy emotions, and Bronfman ensured that the cadenza was a logical extension. (What a shame the dramatic mood of the first movement was broken by those few in the audience who indulged in clapping.) Without much ado, Bronfman made the slow movement a time-taken aria, eloquently expressed, and the finale was a poised and accentuated working-through to the coda’s levity.

These days a galaxy of concert overtures is being given short shrift through unsatisfactory straight-into-the-concerto programming. Good then to hear Mendelssohn’s evocative ‘Scottish’ piece, here given a warmly animated performance with the tempest arriving organically, the string-players athletic in their bow-strokes with Barnaby Robson conjuring balm through the most exquisite of clarinet solos.

Tugan Sokhiev. ©Patrice NinLike the ‘Emperor’, Enigma Variations is hardly a rarity, but when a ‘foreign’ conductor takes a look at it, then one’s interest is stimulated. Pierre Monteux, Eugen Jochum and Arturo Toscanini left us their views on Elgar’s enigma (the lower-case ‘e’ deliberate) and, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, so too Giuseppe Sinopoli; and a host of American cousins (Bernstein, Levine, Previn, Slatkin, Zinman) have distilled it.

Tugan Sokhiev opened the work in flowing and affectionate terms, quite natural but with a Slavic intensity that would serve him and the music well over the course of this 36-minute performance, a timing that suggests a sluggish traversal, but which the ears and sensibilities found anything but. Sokhiev enjoyed some vivid contrasts, much grace, and showed no embarrassment with expansive phrasing. This wasn’t an account that led to ‘Nimrod’ and then away from it; for although this ‘highlight’ was broad and noble – appositely more Beethoven slow movement than ‘in memoriam’ – Sokhiev had ensured that the preceding Variation (for Winifred Norbury) had been fully flowered. If Dan the bulldog in Variation XI was a little arthritic in his paddling, then before his arrival the stuttering of ‘Dorabella’ had been delightfully touched in.

The programme note continued to promulgate the now-questionable advice that Variation XIII (‘***’) quotes on a clarinet from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, when more and more people are convinced that it is from Schumann’s Piano Concerto – maybe a deliberate red herring from Sir Edward. The finale – ‘E.D.U.’, Elgar himself – strutted with purpose and pride, Sokhiev heightening the emotion of the transfiguring coda (with organ) through a deeply-felt expansion; no stiff upper lip here but a big heart gloriously on sleeve. Overall this was a well-read, closely observed performance that served this imperishable masterpiece with freshness and distinction.

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