Friday, February 10, 2017

Bronfman and Blomstedt Bring Out the Stunning Clarity of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist Yefim Bronfman returned as concerto soloist in the first of the four concerts in this week’s subscription series of the San Francisco Symphony. The program was also the second to be led by Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt. The chemistry between the two of them was impeccably well-informed, resulting in an interpretation that was as intimate as it was riveting.

The concerto selection was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) in G major. This concerto was first performed, with Beethoven conducting from the soloist’s chair, at that notorious Akademie marathon concert of December 22, 1808. Given the many subtle ways in which Beethoven undermined just about every convention of a piano concerto, it is a wonder that the piece did not get forgotten in the context of all the other music presented at that four-hour occasion. Today it is the concerto that tends to be at the top of most connoisseurs’ rankings of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, and at least some of those connoisseurs would probably put it at the top of their “all-time” lists. The trick is to present the concerto to a general audience and help everyone home in on what has made those connoisseurs so excited.

This is no mean feat. The score is almost entirely devoid of what one might call tunes, meaning that one can mistakenly think that all the pianist is doing is firing off one virtuosic flourish after another. In spite of that context, however, this concerto embodies some of the most intimate exchanges one is likely to find in the genre. Indeed, there are passages that seem to suggest that the “intimate conversation” metaphor of the eighteenth-century string quartet has somehow found its way into a piano concerto. Furthermore, to continue that metaphor, this is a conversation in which every word, even the slightest article, counts. That subtlety of signification is evident not only in how Beethoven allots his motifs to both the piano and the orchestra but also in his skill in deploying the many shades of coloration afforded by meticulous attention to instrumentation.

Those fortunate enough to have experienced Blomstedt’s approach to conveying these skills in last week’s performance of the Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor would have been well prepared for the similar treatment accorded to Opus 58. For those who missed Opus 125 but have encountered frequent performances of Opus 58, Blomstedt once again mastered the technique of presenting the familiar as if it were being encountered for the first time. (Those for whom the occasion really was the first time probably enjoyed even more of a treat.)

From the soloist’s point of view, Bronfman could not have had a better partner in setting a context for his own explorations of Beethoven’s adventurous technique. Appropriately enough, he chose to play the cadenzas that Beethoven himself had written out, perhaps based on his Akademie performance. However, if Bronfman was always faithfully following the marks that Beethoven had put on his paper, through his engagement with Blomstedt, he could also bring a sense of immediacy to his interpretation of those marks. Every time Blomstedt delivered a gesture with a particular shape, Bronfman knew how to reply with shaping of his own; and the interplay could not have been more exciting.

The result was a stimulating account of how 21st-century sensibilities can breathe the life of spontaneity into the music that was emerging at the very beginning of the 19th century. Most importantly, those sensibilities recognize that music of the past does not belong in museum cases. Blomstedt and Bronfman collaborated to give a hear-and-now approach that reminded us that Beethoven himself was a “working musician” for whom the immediate present was just as significant.

The remainder of the program was devoted to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major; but a necessary follow-up medical appointment obliged me to leave yesterday’s concert at the intermission (with great regret).

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