Above: pianist Yefim Bronfman
Friday January 27th, 2017 - With Semyon Bychkov on the podium and Yefim Bronfman at the Steinway, we were assured of an exciting evening at The New York Philharmonic. Music by Glinka and Tchaikovsky was played in the grand style under Maestro Bychkov's magical baton, and Mr. Bronfman brought down the house with his splendid account of Tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto. Throughout this à la Russe program, visions of the splendours of the Tsarist courts filled the imagination.
The first half of the evening was given over to two scores which inspired George Balanchine to create two choreographic masterworks: Mikhail Glinka's brief Valse-Fantaisie, and the Tchaikovsky concerto. The two ballets unfolded clearly in my mind as the music, so familiar to me from innumerable performances at New York City Ballet, filled Geffen Hall in all its romantic glory.
The infectious, lilting rhythm of the waltz propels the Glinka score; originally written for piano in 1839 and later orchestrated, it is rich in melody and intriguing shifts between major and minor passages, evoking the glamour, chivalry, and mystery of a glittering ball at the Winter Palace. Needless to say, it was sumptuously played under Maestro Bychkov's masterful leadership.
Tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto has been a favorite of mine for years, thanks to my great affection for the ballet Balanchine created to it. Written in 1879–1880, the concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Rubinstein; but Rubinstein was never destined to play it, as he died in March 1881. The premiere performance took place in New York City, in November of 1881 with Madeline Schiller as soloist and Theodore Thomas conducted The New York Philharmonic orchestra. The first Russian performance was in Moscow in May 1882, conducted by Anton Rubinstein with Tchaikovsky's pupil, Sergei Taneyev, at the piano.
Tonight, Yefim Bronfman's power and virtuosity enthralled his listeners, who erupted in enthusiastic applause after the concerto's first movement. The eminent pianist could produce thunderous sounds one moment and soft, murmuring phrases the next; this full dynamic spectrum was explored in the monster cadenza, to mesmerizing effect. A word of mention here of some lovely phrases from flautist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Pascual Martinez Fortenza early in the concerto; in fact, all of the wind soloists were very much on their game tonight.
In the Andante, a sense of gentle tenderness filled Bronfman's playing, and his rapport with concertmaster Frank Huang and cellist Carter Brey in the extended passages where they play off one another made me crave an evening of chamber music with these three masters. The concerto sailed on thru the concluding Allegro con fuoco, with its gypsy-dance theme brilliantly set forth by both pianist and orchestra. Maestro Bychkov, who had set all the big, sweeping themes sailing forth grandly into the hall throughout, was particularly delightful in this lively finale. At the end, the audience erupted in a gale of applause and cheers, Mr. Bronfman cordially bringing Mssrs. Huang and Brey forward to share in the ovation.
Throughout this awe-inspiring performance, the choreography of Balanchine danced in my head, and visions of Viktoria Tereshkina, Teresa Reichlen, Faye Arthurs, and Jonathan Stafford sprang up, the music inspiring the memory of their sublime dancing in Mr. B's remarkable setting of this concerto.
After the interval, Maestro Bychkov (above) led an epic performance of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony. From the burnished beauty of the horn solo near the start, thru the palpable fervor of the Andante cantabile (with its evocation of the SLEEPING BEAUTY Vision Scene), and on thru the Valse, which moves from sway to elegant ebullience, Maestro Bychckov and the artists of the Philharmonic gloried in one Tchaikovskyian treasure after another.
The symphony's finale, right from it's soulful 'Russian' opening theme, seemed to sum up all that had gone before: vivid dancing rhythms from Russian folk music, a march-like tread, a brief interlude. Then the brass call forth, and a tremendous timpani roll heralds a mighty processional. One final pause before a stately repeat of the main theme and a swift, four-chord finish. The audience rightly responded to the Maestro and the musicians with a full-scale standing ovation.