Wonderful Strength and Cohesion in Yefim Bronfman’s Brahms

CanadaCanada Brahms, Liszt, R. Strauss: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Jun Märkl (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 8.12.2018. (GN)

Yefim Bronfman © Todd Rosenberg
Yefim Bronfman © Todd Rosenberg

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op.83
LisztLes préludes
R. StraussDon Juan Op.20

Yefim Bronfman performed a fine complete set of Beethoven Piano Concertos here in 2013; he now turns to the magisterial Brahms Second. While it was the pianist’s transparent line, intelligence and fineness of touch that distinguished his Beethoven, the Brahms brought a more commanding but equally perceptive response, fully assimilating the composer’s lyrical flow and richer sinew while always bringing out the work’s architectural strength. It would be difficult to think of a more naturally cohesive or complete interpretation. Long-time VSO visitor Jun Märkl collaborated and drew fine energy from the orchestra, adding an unusually tight-knit and colourful rendering of Liszt’s Les préludes and Richard Strauss’s Don Juan in the second half of the concert.

The opening movement of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto must convey the sense of a long, varied and often arduous journey, mixing bountiful naturalistic hues with an ongoing sense of human struggle. The music tightens and ebbs, finds different fragrances and degrees of repose, but no matter how winding its path may seem, its integrity and purpose never flinch. These characteristics were particularly evident in Bronfman’s treatment: it was rock-solid in strength and line yet never rushed over beauties, nor sought distracting dramatic emphases that might upset the movement’s natural evolution. There was wonderful detailing and a sense of interpretative space throughout. The pianist’s soft hands and rounded tones at the beginning were special, his punctuating chords that followed commanding and his lyrical/rhapsodic response sentient and telling. Equally important, Bronfman’s contrapuntal and rhythmic address was consistently astute, and he built the many long passages of uncompromising determination and thrust with just the right drive and gradations of intensity. Ample technical delights figured along the way, not least his feathered elegance in the most difficult phrases, but these always took second place to the pianist’s communication.

Playing of this order might have been a bit of a tough act for the orchestra to follow, though they did pretty well. The VSO always marshalled spirited attack but, at times, Märkl tended to push forth the orchestral tuttis with a little too much eagerness and mercurial passion: they might have gained from being more rhythmically controlled and monolithic. The strings were always responsive, though the winds – and the horns in particular – had more variable moments.

The following Allegro can be presented with strong thrust and tenacity (recall Emil Gilels and Fritz Reiner), but this reading was much more moderate. Still, it was nicely anchored in Bronfman’s hands, exuding ease and textural clarity and often allowing a wonderful lightness in articulation to combine with delicious flicks of phrase. The celebrated Andante opened with a cello solo that was a little too quick and breezy, but Bronfman’s entry put everything into place, spawning absolutely consuming pianism, beautifully warm in some ways but distilled in others, opening out the fullest sense of contemplation and wonder in the movement’s progress. The beauty in Bronfman’s placing of each note was special, as was his tone, revealing a true underlying sensitivity. The only qualification might be that the orchestral winds at the end of the movement were too loud to fully sustain the spell; the balance faltered slightly here.

The contrasting ease and caprice in the finale brings great warmth to one’s heart, just as it does in the finale of the composer’s Violin Concerto. All the beguiling jauntiness was there in Bronfman’s playing, tossing off one phrase with a teasing lightness while digging into the next, mining all the shadings and ardour with the ease of a great master. The pianist’s relaxed and intimate relationship with the work always stood out: unostentatious, feeling and knowing. While the orchestra was sometimes heavier than one might want, it was impossible not to fall in love with this performance. The pianist saw the work complete, and his concentration did not falter for a second. This was absolutely special.

The orchestra got a better opportunity to display its wares in the Liszt and Strauss ‘warhorses’ of the second half, and Märkl’s performances had the redeeming virtue that the works did not come off like warhorses. They had plenty of quick motion, colour and cut-and-thrust in them, removing some of their Teutonic heaviness and replacing it with a taste of Gallic sensibility and a hint of the balletic. Märkl is of Japanese/ German descent, but it is instructive to note that he has recorded the Complete Orchestral Works of Claude Debussy for Naxos.

Liszt’s Les préludes was certainly lighter in texture than usual, with more fluid, refined lines, and sometimes a breeziness and shimmer. There was more punctuating colour too, and the brass at the end exhibited a cheeky bright timbre and an excitability which is more French than German. Some may like the bombast in this work, but this was a refreshing take. If the tempos in the Liszt tended to the quick side, they were even faster in Strauss’s Don Juan, which literally bolted from the gate. The interpretation featured finely-knit strings and was relatively small scale in amplitude; the important horns were on their mettle. Perhaps sheer frisson was the defining characteristic of the early proceedings: the characteristic languor and sweetness in the strings could not be realized at this speed, nor was there a clear sense of personal narrative that one might find in smaller-scale, more intimate interpretations (Rudolf Kempe, Clemens Krauss). However, selective doses of colour, set with fluid rhythms and cunning internal detailing, eventually worked their magic, and the performance turned out more sentient and voluptuous later on. Roger Cole’s oboe solo was touching, and the brass again had an interesting Gallic hue. This was not an echt-Straussian performance, but it was certainly an interesting one in the way it used slimmer textures and pointillist colour to build its final emotional effect. The orchestra deserves full credit.

So, a rich and engaging outing overall where the big story remains Yefim Bronfman. Everyone has acknowledged for years that he is a great pianist, but on the evidence here, sometimes I think it should be shouted out a little more loudly. The pianist was honoured with the title of ‘Cherniavsky Laureate’ at this appearance with the VSO.

Geoffrey Newman

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