Bronfman, Dohnányi, and BSO close Beethoven series with rousing “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven liked a triumphant finale, and his series of five piano concertos ends with exactly that.
On Thursday night in Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi and pianist Yefim Bronfman put an exclamation point on their three-program Beethoven mini-festival with a taut, exciting performance of the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, nicknamed the “Emperor.”
The familiar masterwork felt like a homecoming after a long ramble through some of the less-explored territory of the Beethoven oeuvre, which began the previous Thursday and continues through Saturday. Thanks to the high caliber of music-making overall, the trip included some real finds. In the first program of the series, it was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, the earliest-composed and least esteemed of the five, that stole the show in a performance sparkling with wit and invention.
Nobody steals the show from the “Emperor” Concerto, but on Thursday night, in the rarely heard “Triple” Concerto for piano, violin, and cello, brilliant and committed performances by not one but three virtuoso soloists brought the audience to its feet in a kind of delighted surprise.
The three Leonore Overtures, castoffs from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio that served here as openers to the concerto programs, contained some buried treasure as well. Although the Leonore No. 3 in the first program sounded casual and underrehearsed, its near-twin No. 2 fared much better in the next program, and No. 1 on Thursday night was a rare delight, a fizzy theatrical overture instead of a symphonic poem like the other two. Beethoven even put in a “Rossini crescendo”—in which the sections enter one by one to build a phrase up to fortissimo–before Rossini ever thought of it.
Whether Beethoven was aware of it or not, his five piano concertos, composed between 1798 and 1809, form a drama in five acts, best appreciated when the series is performed in numerical order, as this past week in Boston.
As in the series of nine Beethoven symphonies, it is the piano concertos with odd numbers that make the striking breakthroughs in ambition and scope, while the even-numbered ones take a step back to view the genre from another angle.
Last week’s program with Bronfman and the BSO featured the Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, witty and somewhat subversive takes on a genre defined by Mozart, composed to advance Beethoven’s career as a performer, which was soon to be interrupted by deafness. The Third and Fourth Concertos found Beethoven pushing the Mozart model about as far as it would go, then circling around to find a new lyrical-dramatic voice for the concerto genre.
Tuesday led off with the Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, Dohnányi giving full voice to Beethoven’s symphonic argument in the exposition, setting up the contrast with Bronfman’s poised, reflective approach at the piano. Sitting still on the bench but with electricity in his fingertips, the pianist set his polished, Classical stylings against a vigorous orchestra in top form, and prevailed.
When not performing concertos, Bronfman is active as a chamber musician, something that was easy to imagine as he sensitively partnered with orchestral wind players during this concerto’s songful Largo. He approached the bracing finale with understatement at first, but gradually played rougher with the sforzandi and the dissonances, and finally skipped with glee in the C major coda.
If the Fifth Concerto is the “Emperor,” Bronfman’s version of the Fourth could be called the “Introvert.” He took this concerto’s reputation as the dreamer of the five and went for the REM-sleep version. His opening solo was so soft, competing with the shuffle of listeners still settling in their seats, that it was almost lost entirely. Similarly, in the second movement’s piano-strings dialogue, the soloist sounded not just gentle but depressed and limp under the strings’ assault.
It was only when Bronfman cut loose in the first movement’s extravagant, “Appassionata”-style solo cadenza that one realized how strongly he was restraining himself in the rest of the performance. For its part, the orchestra sounded slightly back on its heels, careless about rhythm and details, as if dulled by overfamiliarity with this popular concerto. Fortunately, the rat-a-tat rhythm of the finale seemed to wake up all concerned, and the performance increased in vigor and color to the end.
In the third program on Thursday, the concertofest took a detour to the “Triple” Concerto, a work that many people present were probably hearing for the first time. Composed on order from Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron and piano pupil, for himself and two star musicians in his employ, the piece turned the social tables and put the imperial, but amateur, pianist at the service of his violinist and cellist subjects. In the piece, the three never really play together as a piano trio; instead the string players do some pretty duetting here and there, but mostly vie for honors as the top soloist, while the pianist imitates and comments.
This three-ring circus was a little hard to focus on, and Beethoven’s music for it was also not the most compelling he ever wrote. Violinist Guy Braunstein, making his BSO debut, played with a sweet, slender tone and deftly handled his part’s virtuoso demands. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein sounded dark and mellow by comparison, when one could hear her; the music stand in front of her instrument may have blocked her sound somewhat. Playing like the others from printed music, Bronfman brought less polish and nuance to his subordinate part than he did to his solo performances.
Despite these difficulties, something happened at the end of the first movement, a merry rush of scales leading to a big finish for soloists and orchestra, which brought a startled-sounding “Bravo!” from one listener and then a burst of decorum-defying applause. The performers had them after that, and the audience ate up everything they did, particularly Weilerstein’s soaring solo in the Largo and her fierce concentration on the gymnastic cello part of the delightful polonaise finale.
For the “Emperor,” the familiar Bronfman was back, calm and focused at the instrument, beautifully shaping and relating every aspect of his part, large and small. The orchestra had a military strut to it in the first movement’s exposition, to which the soloist responded with playing that emphasized freedom and fantasy, exploring the shadows of this very bright music.
Orchestra and soloist continued that dichotomy into the Adagio un poco mosso, Dohnányi taking care of the “mosso” (moving) while Bronfman leaned back toward “Adagio” (at ease). Even when he had the melody, the sometime chamber musician made eye contact with the wind players who were accompanying him.
Even amid the exuberance of the finale, attention to detail was evident: the subtle counterpoint of the pianist’s left hand to the cantering theme in the right, the moments when he pulled back to crystal-clear leggiero playing, the bold but balanced horn tooting in the orchestra.
As the last E-flat major chord rang out, the audience—no doubt including many who had made the entire six-concerto, three-overture trip—rose, cheered and repeatedly called Bronfman and Dohnányi back to the stage in acknowledgement of a brave idea well executed.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org
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