Review: Yefim Bronfman brings out the grace in Brahms in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Review: Yefim Bronfman brings out the grace in Brahms in Aspen

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – A few measures into Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Sunday afternoon, it seemed as if Yefim Bronfman and conductor Manfred Honeck had tapped into some urgent flow running through the music and made it real. Bronfman can toss off fast phrases with the best of them, but what a near-capacity audience in the 2,100-seat Benedict Music tent heard was something better. This went beyond bravura virtuosity.

Honeck, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, led the Festival Orchestra with finely judged tempos and a sense of proportion that fit seamlessly with Bronfman’s. The opening measures hovered between hesitation and forward motion, that delicate balance setting up principal horn John Zirbel’s lovely statement of the melody, which led inevitably into the piano’s echo of it. The music simply unfolded naturally for the next 45 minutes.

In the second movement, which usually starts off angrily, Bronfman found a way to make the rising octave phrase feel like a long upbeat into a whirling dance. Principal cello Brinton Smith unfurled the long, arching melody of the slow movement with soulful calm, leading to an unhurried give-and-take between him and Bronfman. The finale’s dexterous dance between the piano and orchestra seemed to smile with an extra helping of grace.

The second half of the concert, Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben,” was a different affair. As seamless as everything was in the concerto, this piece found its footing only sporadically. When it did, as in concert master Robert Chen’s colorful solo work and the ominous transitions between the episodes, it would come together smoothly. But when the music called for big, complex, loud passages, nagging problems of intonation and cohesion in the ranks of the orchestra kept threatening to tip over the boat. But it managed to stay upright.

On Friday evening, conductor Ludovic Morlot favored his native French music in the Chamber Symphony concert, which also featured Joyce Yang playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The program opened and closed with Ravel orchestrations of his own piano works from the second decade of the 20th century. The curtain-raiser, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” must be the most lighthearted piece evoked by a tomb. Ravel originally wrote the neo-classical work in the style of a Baroque French suite of Couperin’s time but with piquant harmonies and other au-courant flourishes. Morlot led a lovely, idiomatic and utterly charming performance of it and of “The Mother Goose Suite,” a colorful series of musical scene-paintings. “The Spider’s Feast,” written by Ravel’s contemporary Albert Roussel, fit nicely between, its more jagged style still very much imbued with French elegance.

Yang took a crisp, almost brittle approach to the Beethoven concerto. Morlot went along, favoring quick tempos and an almost Mozartean style, while Yang aimed for clarity and brightness, tossing off the fleet passagework easily. The slow movement, perversely, came off best, as Yang eased up on the intensity and created a dreamy atmosphere.

Recommended Stories For You

Yang returned Saturday night in an exciting recital with violin phenom Stefan Jackiw, who often plays with eyes closed, head and violin raised high. The collaboration covered a wide swath of stylistic ground, most rewarding in the broad expanses of the joyfully extroverted Sonata for Violin and Piano, by Richard Strauss. Written about the time Strauss was pouring out some of his most memorable songs, the piece bulges with heart-on-sleeve melody and the distinctive, rich turns of harmony that characterized his later operas, especially “Der Rosenkavalier.” Jackiw, who channels some sort of enchantment into the music without looking at the score at all, relished every phrase.

In the concert’s other highlight, Yang found magic in page after page of Bartok’s “Out of Doors,” a favorite solo work of Hungarian and other Eastern European pianists. The suite comprises five vividly atmospheric, fiendishly demanding and occasionally dissonant pieces. She caught the humor in the wheezing alternating chords that suggest bagpipes in “Musettes” and created a haunted, eerie atmosphere in “The Night’s Music,” with its recurring sotto voce chords suggesting wafts of shiver-inducing breezes. (You can tell Bartok came from the same part of the world as Dracula.) The finale, “The Chase,” brought things to an exhilarating, percussive finish.

In its seven minutes, David Fulmer’s “L’Arc de Suspension,” written for this duo in 2011, explores nearly every trick of articulation for these instruments. The violin piped high overtones, doubled the same note on two strings and served twangy ricochets, the piano strumming inside and sustaining only portions of its range. The palette of sonics held interest. The opener, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B flat, K. 454, was as graceful, silky and silvery as could be.

The action is in Harris Hall this week. Tuesday one of the most anticipated concerts of the summer pairs music director Robert Spano with violinist Robert McDuffie in all three of Brahms’ violin sonatas. More Brahms is in Wednesday’s Weilerstein Family Recital (the string sextet, with friends), preceded by music of Janacek and Kodaly. And Thursday the American String Quartet’s recital offers Beethoven’s glorious and confounding final quartet, concluding with the “Grosse Fuge.”