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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Concert Review: Soul Over Beethoven

Yefim Bronfman plays two of The Beethoven Concertos.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Yefim Bronfman.
Beethoven portrait 1803 by Christian Hornemann. Mr. Bronfman photo by Dario Acosta.
Photo alteration by the author.
For the past two seasons, the New York Philharmonic has ended its long season with a festival, multiple weeks of concerts devoted to a single artistic focus. This year, that focus is the five piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven, played by  this year's artist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman and led by music director Alan Gilbert.

Mr. Bronfman is an extraordinary musician, capable of playing thunderous, steel-ribbed works by Prokofiev or making the big black engine sing and croon under his delicate touch. On Thursday night, at the second of four concerts this week, Mr. Bronfman applied his considerable abilities to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Piano Concerto No. 4, two works from very different periods in the development of this extraordinary composer.

The long orchestral introduction to the first movement of Beethoven's First demonstrated that Mr. Gilbert has grown much more comfortable leading Beethoven. The conductor opted for a relaxed approach, expressing the geniality of this movement while still giving the orchestra room to flex itself. Mr. Bronfman's piano bobbed and weaved with the continuo expressing Beethoven's revolutionary idea that the pianist and orchestra must work together to achieve a common musical goal.

Unusually, Mr. Bronfman chose to play all of Beethoven's cadenzas (that's the solo excursion for the pianist, usually towards the end of a movement) as written. In the First Concerto, this approach offered considerable insight into Beethoven's thought processes, allowing the listener to delve into innermost, intimate thoughts being expressed in this "public" musical format. In the finale, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Bronfman were in playful concert, playing the distinctive leap-frogging rondo theme with what can only be described as glee.

The NY PHIL BIENNIAL is over, but the spirit of that festival carried on with the second-ever performance of  Lyra by the young prize-winning composer Anthony Cheung. Inspired by the mysterious chord that opens Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, Lyra incorporates  percussion, pre-taped synthesized effects and glissando-ing, moaning strings to explore the myth of Orpheus and his lyre, with the harp playing a central part. The most effective writing here was the percussion part, using three players and a wide variety of instruments to offer accent and effect, tossing the theme deftly between members of that section.

After the break: the Fourth Piano Concerto, which premiered during  Beethoven's middle or "heroic" period. Mr. Bronfman led the work off with the soft, almost diaphanous chord that is echoed by the orchestra. The movement itself is constructed from a single, short rhythm, a small seed that flowers rapidly into one of the composer's loveliest constructions. Again, Mr. Bronfman found profundity in the long cadenza, Beethoven's own.

The short central movement is one of Beethoven's experimental bridge pieces, a conversation between the orchestra and piano where neither (deliberately) seems to be on the same page. It sets the table for the popular and highly effective finale, a complex set of variations that allowed Mr. Bronfman to unleash the full and dazzling technique at his command. Playing like this is difficult to beat.

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