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Three Works, Four Composers

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
01/13/2011 -  & January 14, 15, 2011
Jörg Widmann: Con brio, Concert Overture for Orchestra
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor
Johannes Brahms: Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for piano and orchestra

Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (Conductor)

Y. Bronfman (© Dario Acosta)

To the trio of German composers listed above, one must add the name Ludwig van Beethoven, who was the “subject” of Con brio, by the eminent young German composer Jörg Widmann. While this had been performed before here, by the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra (who had commissioned it), this was my first hearing, and this opening work was fascinating

Mr. Widmann evidently enjoys cloning composers to his own taste, for his 11 Humoresques played 16 months ago, took the aura of Robert Schumann and made it…well, humoresquely Widmannesque. Taking Beethoven, though is a different proposition.

Supposedly Con brio was limited to the Seventh and Eighth symphonies (both of which have “con brio” movements). But Mr. Widmann didn’t hesitate in adding some scurrying rows and a few dissonances from the Ninth Symphony, the first notes of the Eroica and I heard a measure of two of Leonore.

Except that the composer didn’t actually quote any of these works. Instead, he took Beethoven’s personal idiosyncrasies–the whiplash separate chords, the crescendos, some unspectacular themes (the kind which Beethoven would later develop) and other truly Beethovenian quirks. He moved them in seemingly arbitrary motions, added a few 21st Century quirks, and made a 12-minute piece that was too inspired to be a parody, but always on the cusp of being Mr. Widmann’s party trick.

Coincidentally, his Humoresques had been introduced to New York by Yefim Bronfman, who was playing the Brahms Second Concerto after the intermission.

One always expects Mr. Bronfman to play with unlimited power, and I was expecting that his performance might have melted the slush from the streets around Lincoln Center. Mr. Bronfman’s artistry is like the acting of Lee J. Cobb or Rod Steiger, artists of such innate muscularity that a single glance–or in Mr. Bronfman’s case, a single note–has a congenital mighty force.

Mr. Bronfman has never lacked the titanic virtuosity for the heroic first movement, or the whizzing fingerwork for the demonic scherzo. But in this case, the pianist seemed to enjoy the arboreal Andante and the easy-going rusticity of the finale. Toward the end of the opening, he did get ahead of the orchestra by a fraction, but conductor Christoph von Dohnányi let it be, for this only added to the volition of the work.

Two extra huzzahs must be given to horn-player Philip Myers (not a single bleep in all the solos) and cellist Carter Brey, opening the soulful slow movement.

The middle work was Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, played here with a brisk performance by Mr. von Dohnányi. He is not one to linger over the most romantic measures (and some of us wouldn’t mind more schmaltz for the introduction to the last movement), but the five connected movements were made into a splendid no-nonsense structure.

Harry Rolnick



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