Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yefim Bronfman plays Rachmaninoff

It has been too long since I attended a concert, and last night's outing to hear the NY Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall was pleasure regained. 

According to the playbill, Yefim Bronfman was born in Tashkent, in the Soviet Union, in 1958, and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 15. He made his international debut two years later, at the age of 17, with Zubin Mehta and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Since then he has been appearing regularly with North American orchestras. 

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 has a special connection with the NYP. The composer unveiled the work in 1909, playing the solo part himself, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony, which merged with the NYP. The playbill claims that Rachmaninoff only got round to practicing his part during the Atlantic crossing, when he rigged up a mute piano keyboard for that purpose. 

I came to Rachmaninoff through Scott Hicks's 1996 film "Shine," a biopic about the Australian pianist David Helfgott. The Wiki entry on Helfgott focuses on the controversy over the movie's supposedly inaccurate portrayal of Papa Helfgott. I was completely unaware of the hullabaloo; despite what critics say about Helfgott's playing, I was enraptured by Rachmaninoff's music. I would listen over and over again to No. 3 played by Tzimon Barto, with Christoph Eschebach conducting the London Philharmonic. I also own, on one disc, No. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, played by Artur Rubinstein, with Ritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as Symphony No. 2, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, on a cheap Chandos recording bought in Taiwan where I was training for national service.

Bronfman's playing took Rachmaninov seriously. The flamboyance was always held in check by a firm sense of dignity. The beginning was restrained, almost cool, but the playing soon escalated to percussive thunder. No histrionics in the performance, though Bronfman did leap up, a few times,  from his stool to crash on the keyboard. Is it my imagination that the concerto is darker than it appeared last night? It was grand, but, like a good guest-of-honor, did not brood. 

Introducing aptly the Rachmaninov, Steven Stucky's Rhapsodies for Orchestra had its U. S. premiere. The programming after the intermission was a little strange. After Piano Concerto No. 3,  Ravel's Suite from Mother Goose, and Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin felt like afterthoughts. Many in the audience left during the intermission. 

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