Prom 54: West Coast Calculation

Ibéria (Images pour orchestre)
Piano Concerto No.1
Romeo and Juliet (selection)

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 30 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the blood and guts playing of Gergiev’s Kirov forces and the luminescence of Abbado’s youthful troupe, there was always a risk that Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic would come across as merely professional. Their programme, while shrewdly conceived to boost back-catalogue sales, never seemed to promise revelations. That said, the conductor is an immensely gifted musician whatever the packaging might imply (in this case a new and expensive haircut) and the technical polish of this concert was undeniably striking in its own way. The strings had a soft, even sheen, with even Prokofiev’s highest-lying violin lines smoothly negotiated.

Perhaps the Debussy opener suffered from the proximity of that very special La Mer from Abbado. The Proms’ Spanish theme had presumably dictated the choice of Ibéria and the performance was characteristically spotless, clear-textured and somewhat disengaged. In the first movement, the musicians took a while to settle: the slower central portion’s blend of oboe and solo viola in unison was not very pleasant. Things looked up with ’Les parfums de la nuit’ – not ideally sultry maybe (despite the heat of the venue) but beautifully turned with more in the way of idiomatic rubato. The transition to ’Le matin d’un jour de fête’ was deftly achieved, even if the main body of the movement was again rather too rigid and driven.

Yefim Bronfman enjoys a special relationship with the conductor. They have made several discs together and he has lately been playing Salonen’s own solo piece Dichotomie. Clearly tonight’s concerto held no terrors for him whether of the interpretative or technical variety. A burly, bear-like presence, he surprised the Prommers with his clean and articulate playing, neither falsifying the work with excessive lyricism nor exaggerating its rough edges. There was a hint of blandness at times in the very security of the orchestral response, although both percussion and winds (a truly lovely first clarinet!) contributed a great deal to the success of the slow movement. Bronfman was keen to demonstrate his lighter side with (what seemed to be) an impromptu dose of Scarlatti – a surprise bonus in any event.

Salonen’s own encore at the end of the evening was a notably deliberate makeover of the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye’, presumably designed to showcase his fabulous string section. That same element of calculation was present in the selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, taken from the versions in the suites but re-jigged into a sequence roughly in line with the ballet scenario. Here was brilliance and virtuosity in spades, along with a certain sterility. The last time I heard the ballet complete the maestro was Mstislav Rostropovich and the results could scarcely have been more different. With Salonen, there are no lumps and bumps but little sense of affection or love. Too much polish at the expense of the natural ebb and flow within a phrase and this sort of music can lose the will to live as surely as Juliet herself. While we applauded and went away happy, we were not greatly moved.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday, 4 September, at 2 o’clock

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