Philharmonic blends Bronfman and Beethoven with world premiere
With the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Biennial just barely put to bed, the orchestra returned to repertory staples on Wednesday night, kicking off a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Yefim Bronfman. For the first chapter of the three-week festival, Bronfman, who is the ensemble’s Mary and James G. Wallach artist-in-residence for the 2013-14 season, offered the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major and No. 4 in G major.
Having recorded the complete Beethoven concertos with David Zinman and Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra from 2005 to 2007, Bronfman has been on a Beethoven binge as of late, performing these works in several concerts across North America dedicated to the composer. At Avery Fisher Hall he displayed his mastery of the works, as well as his stamina with both nuance and bravado, alongside Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic.
Opening with the Piano Concerto No. 1, Gilbert set the tone with a clear and deliberate account of this work, which owes much to Beethoven’s predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. Seated with his head craned over the keyboard, Bronfman maintained a controlled demeanor that contrasted sharply with his deft fingers, which spun out filigreed runs across the keyboard and pounded out emphatic chords—the final chord of the first movement was so forceful, it knocked the feet of the sturdy pianist off the ground.
The dreamlike Largo unfolded fluidly, as strings swelled underneath Bronfman’s searching phrases, with both the pianist and conductor closing on a wistful exhale. The rapport between orchestra, Gilbert, and soloist, which flourished across this season, was clear in the rondo in which the piano and orchestra alternate showcased Bronfman’s virtuosity.
These qualities carried over to the performance of Piano Concerto No. 4, which begins with one of the most famous of piano chords ever written. Bronfman took this understated opening a little louder and more forcefully than most pianists, without sacrificing the tender qualities of the moment. However, his elegant rendering of the Andante, often read as an allegory of Orpheus taming the furies with his lyre the underworld, was especially mesmerizing. Bronfman’s introspective interpretation melted around the roiling orchestra, dissolving to an ephemeral whisper. By this time, Bronfman had played nearly sixty minutes, however, the soloist sacrificed none of his technical brilliance, galloping into a luminous rondo.
In between the two concertos, the New York Philharmonic highlighted its commitment to new music with the announcement of Per Nørgård as winner of the 2014 Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. Nørgård, who was in the audience, will receive $200,000 and a commission to write a new work for the Philharmonic.
Meanwhile, one of the beneficiaries of the first Kravis Prize, awarded to the late Henri Dutilleux in 2011, was on stage: Anthony Cheung. Upon receiving the award, Dutilleux split his winnings among three composers, including the now 32-year-old Cheung, and asked them to compose a work for the Philharmonic in his honor. Cheung’s work, Lyra, received its world premiere on Wednesday.
Based on the many musical and operatic retellings of the Orpheus myth and particularly inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Lyra starts with the harp strumming the same G major chord that opens the Fourth Concerto. This chord repeatedly expands into microtones and deflates, in a snare drum roll. As the work progresses, several other instruments and sections simulate Orpheus’s instrument of choice, including the strings, concertmaster Glenn Dicterow in an eerie solo, and a synthesizer emulating a zither.
In two distinct sections, recordings of Orpheus-based works by Monteverdi and Gluck, and others, are knitted into the lush soundscape that often resembled those of Györgi Ligeti. Under the weight of these numerous references, it’s impressive that Lyra managed to convey Cheung’s unique expressive voice.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. tonight, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org