Gergiev and the LSO excel in Russian music

Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Yefim Bronfman (Piano), Philip Cobb (Trumpet), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor). Barbican Hall, London 15.5.2011 (RBB)

Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings Op 35 (1933)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major Op 102 (1957)

Symphony No. 3 in D major Op 29 (‘Polish’) (1875)

Shostakovich had ambitions to become a concert pianist as well as a composer and he was one of the competitors at the 1927 Chopin international Piano Competition. He wrote the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings as a performance vehicle for himself and there is a video recording of him performing the piece on YouTube. It is essentially a piano concerto, rather than a concerto for two equally matched soloists, with the trumpet part taking the form of sardonic interjections. It is in four movements (Allegro, Moderato, Lento and Allegro con brio) and was written around the same time as the 24 Preludes and Fugues when Shostakovich was exploring the expressive and technical range of the piano.

Yefim Bronfman attacked the piano part with real gusto navigating his way through the complex passage work and pyrotechnics with ease. He brought out the spiky sardonic wit of the first movement and made some nimble and fleet-fingered transitions between the brooding melancholy and the playful circus polka elements. The LSO strings and Philip Cobb on the trumpet provided excellent support. Cobb got his chance to shine in the melancholy second movement, where the muted trumpet plays a haunting melody: Cobb’s playing was soulful and expressive.

The short third movement has an improvisatory feel and Bronfman’s phrasing and shaping of the material was immaculate. The riotous finale is justly famous and has been described as “Rossini-meets-Mickey-Mouse”. Bronfman’s handling of the virtuoso passagework was nothing short of spectacular. He played in a very uninhibited way and really seemed to be enjoying himself. The fun seemed to be infectious with Cobb adding riotous trumpet fanfares and the LSO’s strings providing quick fire support. The piano cadenza and final coda were nothing short of electrifying with Bronfman and Cobb pulling out all the stops to drive the piece to an exhilarating conclusion.

Shostakovich wrote his Second Piano Concerto for his son, Maxim. While Maxim was a fine pianist, he was not a great virtuoso, so the concerto is not as technically demanding as the earlier Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings. It is scored for piano and full orchestra and it is a very light-hearted work, containing very appealing thematic material. It is one of Shostakovich’s most popular compositions.

I had some misgivings when I saw that Bronfman had the music in front of him and a page turner for this concerto, although it is perhaps not completely surprising given that he was playing the two concertos back to back. Any concerns I may have had were quickly allayed, as Bronfman once again launched into the first movement with real gusto and virtuoso aplomb. The difficult double octave passages were particularly good with Bronfman projecting real power and intensity. In one or two places, the orchestral sound seemed to drown out the soloist but this helped to underscore the grand sweep of the music.

Bronfman brought some well-judged classical restraint to the lyrical slow movement. The famous romantic melody sang out but not in a way that was overly sentimental. The finale was exuberant with soloist and orchestra revelling in the fun of the piece, particularly in the high-spirited 7/8 section. Once again, orchestra and soloist brought the piece to a triumphant conclusion. I would have thought Bronfman needed a rest after all that but he gave us Chopin’s Revolutionary Study as an encore, which was dispatched effortlessly. Altogether, I thought this was really first rate piano playing.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, which is the least popular of his symphonies, was composed between the First Piano Concerto and Swan Lake. It was nicknamed the ‘Polish’ because it uses the dance rhythms of the polonaise in the finale, although the name is something of a misnomer as the thematic material is decidedly Russian and quintessential Tchaikovsky. It is in five movements (Moderato assai, alla tedesca, andante, scherzo, and allegro con fuoco) with the central three movements being more lightly scored, and having more in common with movements from Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites.

The thematic material in the first movement reminded me of some of the material in the Firstt Piano Concerto and Swan Lake, although it is not quite as distinctive as these works. It starts off with a short funeral march before moving into the main body of the movement. Gergiev had an excellent handle on the architecture of the piece, navigating the orchestra adeptly thought the various transitions and rhythmic shifts. The orchestral textures were admirably clear and the interplay between scurrying strings and wind was excellent. The coda was exhilarating with Gergiev jumping up and down on the podium to generate maximum excitement in the final orchestral tutti.

The middle three movements clearly owe a debt to Mendelssohn and Schumann. Some of the thematic material seems to evoke fairytales and it reminded me of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Berlioz’s ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo. Gergiev brought out the balletic equipoise and finesse of the second and fourth movements. The textures were airy and clear and the phrasing refined and nuanced. The principal bassoonist and horn player did an excellent job with the expressive theme opening the central third movement, and there were lush textures in the strings, which were elegantly shaded.

The finale is a grand and triumphant piece, which allowed the LSO’s brass section to shine, and they rose to the occasion. Gergiev again showed a strong understanding of the architecture of the piece while bringing a lot of character to the individual themes. There is a short fugato in the strings, which was well controlled and the various rhythmic shifts in the coda were used to generate maximum excitement. The conductor and orchestra received very generous and enthusiastic applause from the audience, which was well deserved.

Robert Beattie