The Philadelphia Orchestra with Yefim Bronfman (first review)

Powerful insights of Soviet-era composers

The time could not be better to put everything else aside and listen like we mean it to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, revised and completed in the early 1920s, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, composed 10 years later. The Shostakovich was withheld for 25 years because of Soviet tyranny; creating work that displeased Stalin was a death sentence. Last week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concerts consisted entirely of these two works under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Yefim Bronfman displayed "jaw-dropping virtuosity." (Photo by Frank Stewart)

Tumultuous, romantic

Yefim Bronfman, one of the great pianists of our time, performed the Prokofiev. It’s a tumultuous, often passionately romantic excursion into the modern style. The brightness of first movement’s main theme pierces through the orchestra’s dark sonorities and leads into an extended cadenza that takes up nearly half the movement. In this soliloquy, Bronfman displayed a jaw-dropping virtuosity, an ability to stitch together phrases and effects into a saga of profound meaning. Nor was Bronfman the only focal point; strings and a soaring flute added richness to the total sound. At one point, Bronfman shook his head as though to say, “Nothing can be more beautiful!”

The second movement, a fast-paced Scherzo-Vivace, led to a lilting Intermezzo, sounding like the Prokofiev most of us are familiar with (Lieutenant Kijé, Romeo and Juliet). This movement broke into some whimsical riffs, with Nézet-Séguin leading cheerfully, but the quest for meaning returned in the final Allegro tempestuoso. The string players attacked their instruments with such vigor I expected to see clouds of rosin on the horizon. Yet, in another cadenza, a heavenly melody ascended from the keys, and it seemed as if the overtones escaped from the piano’s frame and were making music of their own (this was a very beautiful effect, and part of the charm of live music). From this delicacy, the orchestra rose again like a large beast, as though Nézet-Séguin could sweep his baton from one side of the stage to the other and release an unimaginable roar. Indeed, the final moments were a near-hysterical tsunami of sound. What a conclusion!

During one of their curtain calls, Bronfman held up Nézet-Séguin’s arm, grabbing it by the wrist, as though announcing the winner of the middleweight championship. Which, in a sense, he was.

A revelation

And yet, the next part of the program was the greater revelation. Nézet-Séguin addressed the audience before the performance encouraging an open mind and consideration of what the composer was subjected to in the USSR of the 1930s. Shostakovich was warned: no more Western-inspired music! Siberia beckoned, or worse. But here was a fiercely driven composer who once famously said, “If they chop my hands off, I will still compose music, even if I have to hold the pen in my teeth.”

Shostakovich composed Symphonies No. 5 through 12 before he returned to the Fourth. I am dying to know where he kept the score and how often he peeked at it, his deviant treasure cloistered from prying KGB eyes. (I guess I’ll be reading Laurel E. Fay’s biography sometime soon). And, like Beethoven’s late quartets, one wonders whether even now the world is ready for this music. According to Nézet-Séguin, when the composer returned to his manuscript after 25 years, he did not change a note.

This is not the Shostakovich of The Gadfly or even the Fifth Symphony, but something edgy and raw, rising out of an artist’s sense of oppression. I was not familiar with this symphony, but found myself spellbound for every one of its 60 relentless minutes. You could carve the hour into five-minute segments and find within each wedge a new universe of ideas and expression.

The symphony is in three movements, but there are many sea changes within them. A violin etches a melody against cellos then a deafening dissonance fanned by brass, worthy of the Finnish composer Aho’s cacophonous symphonic touch, soon followed by a meltingly lovely bassoon solo. Most remarkable — and I am grateful to the conductor for pointing this out before the performance — is a fast, high-pitched fugue starting with the violins, dropping down into the basses and the rest of the orchestra, with very little reference to the original Baroque form. Nézet-Séguin conducted vigorously, partnering with the musicians to create an unexpected fugue, one of those five-minute miracles.

In the last 10 minutes are some of the highest and lowest notes you’ll ever hear, vying for attention, then colliding in a perfect consummation. Quite an achievement.

To read Robert Zaller's review of this concert, click here.

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