The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has not disappointed with their post-Christmas programming, especially for those among us who love a good Romantic piano concerto. Last week saw the coming and going of British pianist Paul Lewis, who presented a lithe, sculpted take on Beethoven’s epic Emperor.
No more than a week later, the CSO was at it again. January 15th’s program marked Maestro Muti’s first performance of the new year, with soloist Yefim Bronfman in tow to play Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, a behemoth in both length—it boasts four movements instead of the usual three—and difficulty.
But during Thursday’s program, Bronfman hardly batted an eyelid at the piece Brahms himself once called “the long terror,” executing the composer’s final piano concerto with astonishing ease and dexterity. Bronfman is, after all, well-known for his interpretations of the most demanding Romantic concertos in the repertoire.
However, for all Bronfman’s polish and dynamism, something seemed to be missing—something I struggled to identify until I remembered what had been said during the program’s pre-concert lecture. There, lecturer and musicologist Johann Buis aptly reminded his audience that, even as a young teen, Brahms was a talented improviser on the piano. And that’s precisely what Bronfman’s rendition lacked: a sense of novelty. Even in a genre like classical music, which requires meticulous preparation, it is that very spirit of extemporaneity that makes live performance so riveting. Bronfman, on the other hand, at times sounded over rehearsed to a fault.
Perhaps our own impressions of Brahms are just as much to blame. Interpretations of the German master’s concerti—thickly scored and technically formidable as they are—can easily err on the side of leadenness. Even the cheeky final movement never quite seemed to achieve the buoyancy prescribed in the score.
Bronfman compensated for what his interpretation lacked in creativity with his sheer technical prowess and seamless cohesion with the CSO, both of which he had in spades. His impeccable synchronicity with Muti was a marvel in itself, and whenever the orchestra fell silent to leave Bronfman to his own accord, his cadenzas proved fleet-footed and refreshingly inventive, especially in comparison to the rest of his performance. This was most apparent in the third movement, which was easily the apex of Bronfman’s already powerful interpretation.
And it was not just Bronfman who made this particular rendition of the Andante stick: Principal cellist John Sharp began the movement with a gorgeously vocalized solo—far and away the most exquisite interpretation this reviewer has heard—and the entrance of consistently-spectacular principal oboist Eugene Izotov a few bars later culminated in a tender duet that more than paved the way for the piano’s pensive opening cadenza.
You know it’s a night to remember at the concert hall when the highs just keep on coming. The concerto was followed by a memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s severely under-programmed First Symphony, "Winter Daydreams."
Now, an admission: this is a piece I will always defend in a fight, lest I ever come to blows with someone over Tchaikovsky’s music. I won’t hold my breath for that particular scenario, but in the meantime, it should be known that the First Symphony is a well-proportioned, sensitively orchestrated delight—one that deserves to be heard in the concert hall more often.
It is fascinating to explore Tchaikovsky’s youthful foray into symphonic writing, only to find that it is, nevertheless, unmistakably Tchaikovskian. Clearly the 26-year-old Tchaikovsky had already found his voice. As even the notoriously self-critical Tchaikovsky fondly mused of Winter Daydreams years later, “I have a soft spot for it, for it is a sin of my sweet youth.”
Perhaps the only sin at Orchestra Hall last Thursday was that Tchaikovsky’s musical reverie ended too soon. The orchestra satisfyingly brought out every nuance in the score, from the skipping, lilting opening figure in the woodwinds to the delicate dynamic shifts of the second movement. The third movement, a silvery Scherzo, was superbly balanced, and the potency of the final movement—with a flurry of strings under strong chords from the winds and brass—brought to mind the yet-unwritten bombastic finales for which Tchaikovsky would become so well-known.
Winter Daydreams is certainly lighter fare than the composer’s later symphonies. However, for those seeking the melodic splendor that makes Tchaikovsky’s music so enduring, the first is, as its moniker promises, a welcome respite in the midst of our own winter, especially under the capable baton of Muti.