Prom 64: Virtuoso Playing of Lutoslawski and Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Lutosławski: Yefim Bronfman (piano); Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2012. (CC)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3

Prom 64: Credit: Chris Christodoulou


It goes without saying that the Berliner Philharmoniker’s visits to the Proms are keenly anticipated. Audacious programming this time, though. The juxtaposition of a work central to the repertoire (Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto) with the more modernist world of Lutosławski was daring – and worked well.

Yefim Bronfman is not a soloist who has always impressed. He worked well in the Proms performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto back in 2007, yet I have also heard him in pounding, brash mode (notably a Prokofiev Second at the Barbican back in 2008). Tonight’s performance found an altogether more subtle musician at work, a chamber musician at heart eager to engage in dialogue with his orchestral colleagues. So it was that his responses to the perfectly judged opening horn solos set the scene for a reading of some stature. His sound, which can be over-bright, seemed tempered to the Brahmsian soundworld, while his voice-leading in Brahms’ frequent polyphonic textures was the mark of a keen intelligence. Moreover, Rattle and Bronfman seemed of one mind in the shaping of the first movement (and, indeed, of the piece as a whole), so that climaxes rolled out naturally and inevitably.

It was a pity a load of people were let in after the first movement, leading to a protracted gap. (Whad they arrived early for an expected 7.30pm start, not the actual sttarting time of 7pm?). When the second movement began, Bronfman in particular looked for (and found) a softer edge to this movement than is the norm. The radiance of the Berlin strings was a thing of great beauty, but it was Bronfman’s tenderness that lingered on. There were, it is true, occasional moments of ragged ensemble, but they were so tiny surely only Beckmessers would mention them?

The solo cello of the Andante (Ludwig Quandt, I assume) was surprisingly a little awkward, though – a pity given the fact that the movement had a wonderful sense of flow, even of story-telling about it. The faster than usual speed also enhanced the more dramatic moments; the finale once more emphasized the feeling, not only of chamber music, but also of camaraderie and bonhomie. A memorable reading, to be sure.

However, it was Lutosławski’s Third Symphony (1981-83) that was the real draw for this reviewer. It is a wonderful work that has been well served on disc (the composer recorded it twice, plus there is Salonen’s excellent disc). Despite its frequent use of the composer’s trademark controlled aleatorism, it also shows a more mellow side of the composer, with its long-breathed melodies and its rapid-fire, unmissable repeated ‘E’s (like a blast of machine gun fire) acting as structural signposts. Rattle’s expertise with the music of our time is well documented, and he seemed in his element. The orchestra responded with true virtuosity (brass pealing out magnificently, percussion sparkling). Against this were the held-breath sonorities, and the ‘keening’ woodwind gestures that could have come straight out of a James Macmillan composition. The plangent oboe solos, in this reading, seemed to be at the very heart of the work. Massive, bass-up sonorities vied with slow processionals and walls of brass sound to present a varied terrain that seemed at once to sum up Lutosławski’s traits and yet point forward to new ones, a new expressivity that seemed to be surfacing in his work at the time of composition.

The work was commissioned by another virtuoso orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and its bright, brash moments are perfect for that ensemble. Rattle and his orchestra revealed the symphony as a multifaceted masterpiece, though, not just a showpiece. The applause at the end was appreciative, but it was not until the encore (some easy-on-the-ear Dvořák) that the Prommers were at their most vocal. Sir Simon gave a little spoken introduction, claiming that they wouldn’t normally encore after the Lutosławski, but that they were making an exception for “the greatest audience in the World”. It was great fun, just as the Brahms had been thoroughly enjoyable. But without doubt it was the Lutosławski that really made the evening something special.

Colin Clarke