By David Gordon Duke
VANCOUVER — Performances of all five Beethoven piano concertos by soloist Yefim Bronfman made up a stellar event this fall, presented over three evenings by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in the Orpheum Theatre, concluding on Dec. 9. The VSO has tried out “package programming” with increasing frequency over the past few years. Vancouver concert-goers have heard series devoted to Brahms and to Beethoven, and in the spring the orchestra is slated to give Rachmaninoff a similar treatment. Less conventionally — and, I’d argue, far more significantly — VSO music director Bramwell Tovey’s multi-year Mahler cycle should be complete at the end of this season.
The idea is by no means unique: Consider Lang Lang’s Beethoven concerto series at the Royal Albert Hall, or Paul Lewis’ Beethoven sonata project. No matter: Bronfman’s Beethoven was a conspicuous success, evidently enjoyed by near sell-out audiences (not, alas, the rule at the VSO of late), and a fruitful collaboration for the star soloist, conductor, and orchestra.
With insufficient music to make up three full concerts, part of the success of this endeavor was how Tovey filled out the programs: a Janus-like glance backward and forward clearly contextualized Beethoven in relation to Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner.
Part of the fun of hearing the cycle (which, after all, can only give a partial picture of Beethoven) was in how this game of connections played out. Given Bronfman’s commitment to Bartók, one couldn’t help hearing the end of the Emperor Concerto, with its duet between piano and timpani, as a precursor of future piano/percussion explorations.
There’s a strategic problem with this sort of survey: Performing five works in the same genre by the same composer for the same audience requires an overall plan and a trajectory that’s effective in the concert hall. Bronfman’s idea was to make the first two concerti (presented on Nov. 16) ultra-classical, emphasizing in a restrained manner their balance of charm and audacity. A few days later (Nov. 18) the Third Concerto was given a more robust reading, a performance that emphasized Beethoven’s growing confidence and originality.
VSO patrons had to wait a few weeks for the finale on Dec. 7, another two-concerto evening. In the Fourth Concerto Bronfman’s playing stressed the work’s playful elegance, but with a certain sense of mystical ambiguity in the Andante con moto and the finale. The Emperor Concerto brought things to a climax in a blaze of joyous excitement.
Over the course of the concerts Bronfman kept his sound refined, and avoided, for the most part, the virtuoso grand manner, though his playing was informed by his obvious power, glorious tone, and formidable technique. Conductor Tovey is known for his sensitive work with soloists; the partnership with Bronfman was exemplary. The VSO musicians were kept on a very tight leash, but the results more than justified Tovey’s firm hand. Strings were taught, crisp, and disciplined, and wind balance was the best I’ve heard this season.
David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.