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Dutch Treat

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/04/2008 -  and February 5*, 6
Otto Ketting: The Arrival
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major, Opus 26
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73

Yefin Bronfman (Piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (Conductor)

The annual visits of an orchestra which represents the best of Europe as well as Holland, is always an occasion to treasure, and the three nights of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, with meaty music by Debussy, Strauss, Brahms and Mahler, should disappoint nobody. Their Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons, is an international figure in the best sense of the word: born in Latvia, educated in the Soviet Union, supervising orchestras in Europe and America. But Jansons has never forgotten the role of this orchestra. Not only do they have wonderful individual players, but their ensemble work has an old-fashioned pre-Karajan kind of comfort.

To that later. For form’s sake, the orchestra began with one of Holland’s foremost composers, Otto Ketting. His 15-year-old work for an unusual orchestral ensemble, De aamkomst (The Arrival) was perhaps a misnomer, since one must go somewhere in order to arrive. This music, clever as it was, with interesting orchestral effects, never went anywhere. The harmonies were conservative, the melodies predictable, and only the sound combinations were of interest.

The similarity to John Adams (or Arthur Honnerger’s Pacific 231) was striking, with nervous strings repeating phrases over and over against blurts and bays from winds, marimba and glockenspiel, as well as a few virtuosic measures from the tuba. It was quick, energetic, tense, and rather empty.

The composer describes a journey as “a concentrated passage of time—the awareness of time changes; things which happen during the journey are often only meaningful afterward?” The “afterword,” unfortunately for Ketting, was Yefim Bronfman. playing Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, so Ketting did not have a chance.

Like Jansons, Bronfman is a creature of the world. Born in Uzbekistan, he went to Israel at the age of 15, studied later in America with, amongst others, Rudolf Serkin, and today, as an American citizen, takes his miraculous hands around the world. In the Prokofiev, he had the perfect vehicle.

If one must reduce the Third to a phrase word, it would be “playtime for the Titans.” Rare is the Prokofiev’s astringency, never his acid. But from the fifth measure on (after a deceivingly mild opening), this is the Pianist as the Man (or Woman) of Steel. The fingers must be steely, the piano can be percussive, hard, yet always playful. Only the best can play it without making it seem an agony of exercises.

Bronfman was made for the task. His octave runs were tensile, his chords smashed into the balcony, the fingers, never once did he stop to say, "Hey, I’d better slow down ," for he plunged ahead with volatile strength.

After five bows, he relented to play a Chopin encore, but the speed of the Prokofiev never left him, and that was simply a showpiece. The Russian work was an epic performance.

I confess to feeling trepidation before Brahms' Second Symphony. Last week, after the New York Philharmonic played Berio’s Sinfonia, Brahms' Fourth sounded almost pedestrian. Would the same happen here?

Not at all. Lorin Maazel had conducted a 19th Century Symphony. Jansons played the Brahms perhaps as Brahms would have wanted. It was a landscape, a walk in the country, a Watteau masterpiece. Were strings sometimes not electrically coordinated? Did the pace seem, not slow, but relaxed, as if to show all Brahms’ little tricks? Perhaps so, but this was 19th Century playing, and it suited this orchestra with a gorgeous grandeur.

Harry Rolnick



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