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Tchaikovsky; Piano Concerto No. 1, Manfred Symphony. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 5.3.2006 (HS)



A Russian orchestra and a Russian-born pianist playing perhaps the most familiar of Russian concertos promised something special, and if the orchestral playing was not as precise as one expects from the top ensembles in the U.S. and Western Europe, the vital energy and no-nonsense approach of the piano soloist, Yefim Bronfman, was infectious. Taking their cue from his Bronfman's buoyant playing, free of mannerism or indulgence, the orchestra grabbed onto his coat tails and scrambled along for an invigorating ride through the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall.

Vladimir Jurowski set a moderate pace in the brief orchestral tutti that opens the concerto, not as grand as some might prefer, but it left the door open for Bronfman to charge through and push the pace ever so slightly with his opening chords. It was if the orchestra had announced a sunrise with orange clouds and the piano was the sun bursting into view and calling the assembled musicians to wipe away the last vestiges of sleepiness and join the day.

Musically, the effect was to put an extra charge into the piece, shaking off the cobwebs of so many super-serious performances. Bronfman used his towering technique to shape a lean, muscular traversal or crystalline clarity. You could hear his every note, even in the extremely rapid and dense passages. The big, broad chords had the necessary weight but the pace never dragged.

In the slow movement, the ping Bronfman coaxed from the piano let the melodies suspend themselves as if in midair, wafting along a gentle breeze. The finale, with its Russian peasant dance patterns, lacked nothing for bite or energy despite remarkably deft articulation. ??? and the orchestra were working hard to keep pace. Several times you could feel Bronfman holding back just enough so he and the orchestra would land together on the end of a phrase.

Sometimes a soloist and conductor clearly have different ideas of how fast the piece should go. (I recall a Beethoven concerto involving Ann-Sophie Mutter and Charles Dutoit in this very hall some 15 years ago that played out like a sonic war.) This was not so much a disagreement but a case of a soloist so much more lively than the orchestra that they all seemed to sort of work out the details on the fly. In the end, they got there together, and the results were bracing.


Some of the same energy carried over into the second half of the program. The Manfred Symphony is performed much less often than Tchaikovsky's 4, 5 or 6, or even Winter Dreams. It is long, more than an hour, and using cyclical themes on rising scales, it lacks the variety and the color of Tchaikovsky's more familiar symphonies, but it has its rewards in its rich textures and big climaxes. If the RNO's virtuosity doesn't quite reach those of the world's top orchestras, there is no doubt they know how this music goes and how to draw plenty of juice from it.

There were two encores, both drawn from Tchaikovsky's ballet scores: the first an especially delicate (and fast) "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker, followed by the final pages of Swan Lake. The falling scales of the  latter made a nice bracket with the rising scales of the Manfred.



Harvey Steiman




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)