BRONFMAN’S MASTERY AT THE BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL
Yefim Bronfman, Piano; VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, Orpheum, November 16, 18, and December 7, 2013
Over the last 30 years, Yefim Bronfman has been one of the most accomplished and versatile pianists before us. His appearance at the VSO Beethoven Festival to play the composer’s complete piano concertos was truly a cause for celebration. Always known for his brilliance and tonal beauty in technically demanding works and his sheer power and command in the more heavy-hitting modern concertos, Bronfman has turned to Beethoven only relatively late in his career. Perhaps one might anticipate a robust Beethoven too, full of bravura but, surprise, what we got at these concerts was almost exactly the opposite! All of Bronfman’s beautiful piano tone and articulation were there but, so light was his touch much of the time that the scale was closer to Mozart or possibly Chopin. But this is Bronfman’s way: his recorded Beethoven cycle with conductor David Zinman in 2006/7 (on Arte Nova) used a similar approach with a small ‘authentic’ orchestra, garnering praise for its musicality, subtle detail and chamber music feel.
A small-scale approach can work well for the first two ‘youthful’ concertos, but the real measure of any Beethoven cycle is in how well the last three, greater concertos fare. I thought the dramatic 3rd concerto was a real success. Bronfman judged the long first movement so well that it literally flowed from beginning to end as chiseled splendor: thoughtful, beautifully sculpted, moving only to a more forceful posture when it had to. So many felicities of phrasing were illuminated anew. The serenity of the following movement was also striking, featuring wonderfully-refined and composed pianism. Bronfman’s wit and subtlety in the finale took the work home splendidly. Bramwell Tovey did not scale the orchestra down to authentic size, but he adopted a rough, almost brash style in his conducting that contrasted perfectly. One could almost feel the ‘rawness’ of authentic performances. For example, in the finale, Bronfman played the opening theme with wit and play, but the orchestra responded with full seriousness, pushing forward with emphatic power. The contrast created exactly the spark that was needed.
I wish I could say that the 4th concerto and the ‘Emperor’ offered the same experience, but this was not to be. The former requires a very strong interaction between conductor and pianist to probe its intimacy, lyricism and sublime beauty, and that was only fleetingly present. Part of the difference was that Bramwell Tovey traded his rugged style for a smoother and more upholstered one, so that the pianist’s purity of expression was trapped in somewhat foreign territory. Bronfman indeed gave us moments of great beauty in the opening movement, but overall there was a sense of pallor to the playing, and much less concentration, line, and interaction with the orchestra than we saw previously. Even the great slow movement, where time should ‘stand still’ at least momentarily, did not achieve complete repose, being moved too hastily forward. The finale featured athletic pianism, but possibly more pretty than probing.
The first movement of the grand ‘Emperor’ concerto inherited some of the same deficiencies. Again, some wonderfully sculpted and intelligent pianism, but little of the intensity of a real dialogue between soloist and orchestra. However, things improved after that. There was greater concentration in the slow movement, where its lovely, unforced poetry flowed out with considerable beauty. And all the unbridled play and joy of the finale were brought home with Bronfman’s consummate dexterity. Perhaps not the ‘gleaming meteor’ that this concerto can be, but worthwhile nonetheless.
I regard this Beethoven Festival as an undoubted success. Even if the performances differed in quality, just being able to see Yefim Bronfman’s masterly pianism was treasure enough. The additional bonus was that we got some glimpses into a refreshingly-different Beethoven style.
© Geoffrey Newman 2013