Orchestral Grandeur Eclipses Soloist’s Contribution

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Myaskovsky and Janáček: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. 14.2.2016. (BJ)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Myaskovsky: Symphony No. 10 in F minor, Op. 30

Janáček: Taras Bulba

I enjoyed this concert even before the music began. It was a pleasure to enter the hall and see the orchestra seated in the good old classical arrangement, with the two violin sections disposed respectively to the conductor’s right and left, with advantage to the clarity of Beethoven’s orchestral writing. Vladimir Jurowski, moreover, showed himself fully adept at reading a score, in sharp distinction to Christian Thielemann when he conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto here some 20 years or so ago. Thielemann delivered the slow movement, to which the composer gave a single p marking, in an inappropriate and pretentious pianississimo that hovered on the brink of inaudibility.

The pleasure produced by Jurowski’s direction of the orchestral part would have been redoubled if the evening’s soloist had offered a similar degree of artistry. Yefim Bronfman can play all the notes, and he responded to Beethoven’s astonishing offbeat accents in the main theme of the finale with exhilarating zest. Some of his fortissimo passages, however, such as the grandiose utterances at the beginning, tended to be muffled in character. And in the softer music, especially the rhapsodic C-flat-major variant of the second subject that had been so ravishingly played earlier by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s horns, he yielded to the temptation to make the highest note in each phrase also the loudest. This is the sort of inartistic error that some overrated conductors have perpetrated, and whether in the orchestral field or on the piano, it seriously undermines the effect of the music.

After intermission, to my surprise, Jurowski had the orchestra return to its customary layout with all the violins to his left and the cellos at the front of the platform to his right, and, if the change was in any way disturbing to the musicians, the unruffled expertise of their playing gave no hint of it. The two works on the second half of the program were of very different artistic value. Myaskovsky wrote some attractive music in the first half of the 20th century, but his Tenth Symphony seems to me a bombastic example of the one-damn-thing-after-another school of symphonic composition. When I think of the marvels Richard Strauss achieved when he scored for eight horns, I find it hard to understand why Myaskovsky needed that many for his own entirely unspectacular orchestral effects.

Janáček’s Taras Bulba is a very different matter. It has been played only twice before by the Philadelphians: superbly when Libor Pešek introduced it at the Mann Center in 1991, and less impressively under Sian Edwards’s direction at subscription concerts six years later (on the latter, curiously enough, Mr. Bronfman was also the soloist). A three-movement tone poem full of the Czech master’s characteristic originality of pulse and texture, it culminates in some truly inspiring grandeur in the heroic vein. It deserves to be heard more frequently—I have often thought that it would make a wonderful concert-mate for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—and Jurowski and the orchestra realized its impassioned message with total conviction.

Bernard Jacobson

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