A Stupendous Series Opener

10.25.07
The New York Sun

Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-Israeli-American pianist, is a musician of unusual integrity. And before Tuesday night's concert at Carnegie Hall, he was candid. According to publicity materials released by the hall, he said, "Orpheus - a conductorless ensemble - wanted to do this piece, and at first I was reluctant. Mozart, okay, or Beethoven - but Brahms is trickier. They insisted and felt they could do it, and I'm open to experiments. I'm going to take a chance."

 

Mr. Bronfman launched one of Carnegie's Perspectives series, which will show him in several musical guises: chamber musician, recitalist, and so on. And, on this opening night of the series, he played Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - that "conductorless ensemble," or, as I often call it, "riderless horse." So, did Mr. Bronfman's gamble pay off? It did, handsomely.

There was not only the question of an orchestra without a conductor; there was the question of the orchestra's size. Was a chamber orchestra suitable to this Brahms concerto, a mammoth, titanic work? When Orpheus began the concerto - that huge B-flat-major chord - the sound struck me as too small. But the ear eventually adapted; and Orpheus projected enough heft, without overexertion.

Mr. Bronfman, when he started out, was appropriately restrained and balanced. Quite possibly, he was playing on a smaller scale than he would have normally - than he would have with, say, the Chicago Symphony. And, instead of looking at a conductor, he looked at various players, for coordination. For example, he locked eyes (I believe) with the timpanist. And, often, throughout the concerto, he led from the keyboard - not with his hands or body, but with his music-making.

As he played, Mr. Bronfman was both Classical and Romantic - just like Brahms. He knows when and how to apply Mozart values to this composer. Yet he was no violet (as he is not in Mozart): His octaves, for instance, were duly ferocious. And, of course, he has the ability to play ferociously without pounding, ever.

A word about his chords - and I'm thinking particularly about one spot in the first movement: They were solid, unified, and warm, having an almost religioso feel. Chords are less easy to play than many people know.

In the second movement, that great Adagio, Mr. Bronfman was again warm - both masculine and warm. This is Brahms. And the tones Mr. Bronfman achieved in what you might call a raindrop portion of this movement were astounding. His slow trills were highly, highly effective. In brief, he has musical judgment, for which there is no substitute.

When I write about Yefim Bronfman, I often speak of his "weightedness" - his ability to apply just the right weight to each note. This is crucial in piano playing. And he exhibited this knack for weightedness in the opening figure of the third movement - the Rondo. He almost always does, of course; but this quality was especially noticeable there. In the course of the Rondo, he was tart, limpid, majestic, thrilling - whatever Brahms required.

The orchestra? In the fugal section of the Rondo - orchestra alone - they were not quite together. And they were not quite together with Mr. Bronfman, as the pianist raced in Brahms's glorious, releasing D major. But they did a commendable job. And here is a particular: At one point in the Rondo, the cellists made a rare, raw peasant sound - very effective.

One could give no end of particulars about Mr. Bronfman's performance. But suffice it to say, it was stupendous.

The concerto was on the second half of the evening's program. Before intermission, Orpheus played one of Schoenberg's masterpieces: the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9. This is a tricky piece to keep together, but our riderless horse mainly did. Various parts were clear and well integrated. The different lines accomplished their assigned weavings. And those jazz licks - or semi-jazz licks, or protojazz licks (the piece is 1906) - were enjoyable.

Overall, this piece can convey a little more danger. It can be more insinuating, or more worming, if you will. It should get under your skin, make you uneasy. But Orpheus was praiseworthy.

And, to open the program, they had played three Hungarian Dances of Brahms - one extremely familiar (No. 1 in G minor), the other two less so. The orchestra was adequately together, and adequately flavorful. The dances had a dusting of paprika. But the music was not quite as crisp as it could have been, and not quite as daring. Sometimes, you miss the personality of a conductor - a good conductor, that is. Better none than a poor one, I suppose.

By the way, who was that oboist, sitting in Orpheus? The excellent Sherry Sylar of the New York Philharmonic? It was. And she played with her usual distinction.

A word about the audience, too: It withheld applause between Hungarian Dances, as though these were movements in a single work, or a song set. Too bad - sometimes (believe it or not) the audience is too prim.

And a closing word about Yefim Bronfman: He is not only one of the great pianists of today, but a historic pianist - a pianist for all time. This will be universally recognized once he is aged or dead. Then those who heard him will say, "I knew it all along." Until then, they will play it rather safer.

But you don't have to be a latecomer: You can recognize it, even say it now: Though not yet 50, Mr. Bronfman is a historically great pianist. For his technique, musicality, and versatility - he has no specialty; he is all-purpose - he is historically great. And we are damn lucky to be attending concerts in his prime.