Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/26/2017 - & January 27*, 28, 2017
Mikhail Glinka: Valse-Fantaisie
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.2 in G Major, op. 44 (original version) – Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op.64
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Y. Bronfman, S. Bychkov (© Chris Lee)
After the success of last season’s festival devoted to Rachmaninov’s piano concertos and symphonic works, this past January the New York Philharmonic launched another three-week festival, this one devoted to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This time the Festival was to be led not, as last year, by three different conductors but by just one, Russian born Semyon Bychkov, known for his compelling performances of Tchaikovsky. The star pianist Daniil Trifonov, who last year played four of the Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra, was replaced with two different piano virtuosos, though both of Russian origin. Similar to the Rachmaninov Festival, this year’s “Beloved Friend” attempted to present Tchaikovsky music in context, even if the context was of somewhat modest dimension. There was one chamber music program featuring the first desk players of the NY Phil and Yefim Bronfman (who was also the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 2) and a program of vocal music. However, throughout the Festival the dominant composer was still Pyotr Ilyich. The organizers obviously had in mind the presentation of works that rarely appear, such as the so-called “original” version of the Piano Concerto No. 1, or Taneyev overture to the opera Oresteia. Personally I would have preferred – if we were to follow that path – a rarely performed original version of the Rococo Variations, which the Philharmonic’s excellent first cellist Carter Brey performed shortly after assuming his position with the orchestra. Here there also would have been a chance to feature the superb musicians from within the orchestra. And what about one of the least frequently played of Tchaikovsky works, his Orchestral Suites? Anyway, we got instead the Manfred Symphony, considered by some conductors as a masterpiece.
The first of the three programs featured the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 5. As an appetizer – or a work “of context” – we heard a charming if inconsequential Valse-Fantaisie by Glinka, which mistakenly I always attributed to Tchaikovsky; the styles are not all that dissimilar.
Yefim Bronfman was the soloist in the concerto which needs a super-virtuoso pianist to do the work justice. It was dedicated to the great Russian pianist, Nikolai Rubinstein, who only five years earlier savaged the First Piano Concerto. This time the master had supposedly nothing negative to say and only his premature death prevented him from giving the work its premiere. Taneyev, whose music will be performed at the third of the Festival concerts, had played the Moscow premiere of the concerto and another great, perhaps the greatest pianist of his era, Anton Rubinstein, was on the podium.
This is one of the Tchaikovsky works where later editors and performers brought forth their own visions of how the concerto should sound. They were probably right, for it is an uneven work especially in its first two movements. The first movement is not only long, but has a rather fractured form. To call it rhapsodic would be a compliment indeed. With awkward brucknerian breaks where the composer moves from one thematic material to another and extended sections that sound academic, the work also contains a huge cadenza. One can of course grow to love this composition, but only after some effort. Then there is the equally long second movement where the protagonists are the violin and cello rather than the piano, which assumes an almost accompanying role. This time I was pleased that the original, uncut version was played, especially as it featured two superb musicians: concertmaster Frank Huang and the already mentioned Carter Brey. Both played their haunting, poignant parts beautifully. Their roles in the concerto was just a sort of prelude for a day later, when they shone even more prominently during the performance of the Trio in A minor (reviewed on Jan. 29th). And what about the soloist? Bronfman has all the technique to conquer his piano part, which must be the largest display of martellato (alternating chords or octaves) practice in the repertory. This pianist seems never seems vulgar, even in scores like Tchaikovsky’s, which easily can slip into that territory. He displayed all the natural ability to negotiate the most difficult passages without the audience noticing it. His virtuosity doesn’t call attention to itself; there’s no affectation, pomposity. I don’t know why, but his playing, with all its aplomb, also had a little dour, grim, unsmiling character. Even the dancing last movement, with its balletic mode, was more dutiful than jolly.
One could hardly blame the orchestra or its conductor. Bychkov knows the score, knows the music and leads it with a sure sense of orchestral textures. Yet all in all this performance did not erase from memory those that two years ago took place on the same stage, one with the Russian pianist Bella Davidovich (who’d expect a smallish woman to pack such a wallop?), and the other with Jerome Lowenthal, an American, and still considered one of the best pianists in this particular repertory.
After intermission we heard the Symphony No. 5. Here Bychkov showed even better his understanding of music and control over the orchestra, which played brilliantly that night. This is the Symphony where the “fate” theme weaves throughout the work; it appears in all of the movements in different guises to finally erupt in an affirmative, triumphant march near the end, where another opening theme also is brought back.
The brass was splendid and plenty loud. The notorious French horn solo in the Andante cantabile (2nd movement) was intoned with a gorgeous silky sound and total assuredness: the indispensable Phillip Myers had a good night!
There are some performances that allow a reviewer to sit and enjoy them without wondering what could be improved. Thus I think it will be a compliment to say that the performance we heard was normal; elegant, natural, even traditional. In Bychkov’s reading there was nothing fancy, no extravagance. He just let the music flow. Tempos were well controlled throughout and the transitions were always natural. He knows how to shape the romantic phrases and mold the sound of the strings. It was nice to see him afterwards and to congratulate each section of the orchestra, reserving, of course, special thanks to Mr. Myers. I guess we can expect similar experiences when Bychkov comes back with the Manfred and Pathétique symphonies.