Saturday night, in the second of three programs devoted to performances of the complete Beethoven piano concertos, Christoph von Dohnányi and Yefim (“Fima”) Bronfman performed the 3rd and 4th concertos with the BSO at Symphony Hall with richness, elegance, emotional depth, and uncommon understanding.
Each of the three concerts in the series is preceded by one of the Leonore overtures. Saturday’s program opened with the Leonore Overture No. 2, the first in order of composition and the longest of the three. Von Dohnányi reminded us that it is not a preliminary and distorted version of the No. 3, but is a work of its own, symphonic in scope. It was played on a grand scale, with strong contrasts in dynamics, explosive and intuitive.
Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto, with its clear debt to Mozart’s C minor K. 491, is a transitional work, as far ahead of the C major Op. 15 as that work is from the (earlier) B-flat major Op. 19. Von Dohnányi and Bronfman brought out the elegance of this work, Bronfman playing with a lyrical yearning, the phrasing smooth and silky. The BSO response was light but mysterious, with sudden impetuous outbursts. Even in the cadenza, Bronfman remained quietly emotional, his face revealing a depth of feeling that flowed into his fingers with singular authority. The ensuing Largo opened with a beautifully carried, long melodic line in the piano, the orchestral response throughout was simultaneously lush, romantic, and clear. The Rondo finale was played with grit and fine humor, emphasizing the dancelike accents and the limbic rhythms, all leading to the final joke of a fake cadenza followed by a mad rush for the exits. It received a very enthusiastic ovation.
As Lockwood writes, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 “sustains a plateau of quiet beauty from beginning to end.” This performance, however, went beyond beauty, revealing an emotional intelligence and unity in the work that I had never heard before. Words alone are inadequate to describe fully the layers of complexity in this performance. Immediately from the piano’s opening statement and the pp reply from the orchestra, Bronfman and the BSO together gave it a searching, questioning character, a mutual probing that continued throughout the Allegro. The prayer-like tone became a plea for meaning, orchestra and soloist transferring affect to each other, each time with increased understanding and moments of almost overwhelming ecstasy. The final cadence of the first movement came as a determined statement of persistence.
The ensuing Andante conveyed a mature, dark awareness of fate, tinged with anguish. The orchestra remained anxious and agitated, the piano’s eloquent phrasing absorbing the angst of the troubled strings, but then itself taking on the agitation. The exchange was elegiac, solemn and heartfelt, ending on an enigmatic note. The Rondo finale came as a release, building to a rapturous delight, almost cathartic with a quiet joy then bursting with wondrous vitality. A principle of life/energy took over, yet the piano remained mindful of inner resources of lyricism. The development episode especially was forceful, assertive, liberated, the orchestra absorbing the piano’s energy and becoming infused with force. The cadenza solo was a long-awaited expelling of the tensions that had built through the first two movements. Piano and orchestra together soared in the pianissimo ending statement that built to a triumphant final cadence. Again the audience responded enthusiastically, with a unanimous standing ovation.