In the final round of the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts featuring all the Beethoven concertos for piano, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and violinist Guy Braunstein joined with pianist Yefim Bronfman and conductor Christoph von Dohnányi to perform the Triple Concerto. The Leonore Overture No. 1 opened the program, and the 5th Piano Concerto, “Emperor,” concluded it on Thursday.
Dohnányi conducted the Leonore from memory. He was nonchalant, über-relaxed, arms loose as if he were combining stretching exercises with his leading of the orchestra. The results: lushness and richness over crispness and sharpness, though there was clear articulation throughout.
During the first part of the orchestral exposition of the Triple Concerto, violin soloist, Guy Braunstein, ‘jammed’ with his fellow violinists before stepping aside for separation of solo duties. With her first entrance, cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s warm, projected tone was a bit of a surprise (the projection, not the warmth), almost as if she had some acoustical support other than a cello stand. No, just her playing. Her lovely melodic leaning into suspensions and appoggiaturas might have had the pianist a bit jealous, as he had no such options with his instrument. But he would find other ways to express himself, and show the violinist and cellist a thing or two in the process, all part of Beethoven’s grand plan, it seemed to me, as this fun drama unfolded.
Braunstein entered the fray second, his playing more lean and crisp to contrast the big roundness of the cello, with a grace and a gentlemanly, aristocratic lilt. Braunstein, especially, and throughout the piece, gave the impression that he would play this piece this way today, but tomorrow, another day, perhaps differently. Totally refreshing.
Bronfman added some raucousness when he, the last of the soloists to announce himself, entered with bouncing octaves. Then, we were treated to piano in left hand duet with cello, followed by right hand duo with violin. Moments later, Bronfman’s hands teamed up to duo (duel?) both string players at once: a quartet! Great musical theatre, a fun visual display, and a really good piece for Bronfman, who has that uncanny ability to project multiple musical lines at once. “Try that, violin and cello!” he might have said with a smile, were it at all his style. Tons of playfulness on Beethoven’s part here, and an equal amount of problem solving about how to combine effectively these three instruments with orchestra.
At one point, the cello was playing pizzicato in support of her two soloist colleagues, when six basses joined in to accompany her pizzicatos. We heard a supercharged cello! What a fun effect! The three soloists did ample digging when required, and there was a lot of volleying of musical ideas. The German folksong that came later in the first movement was rendered with gusto and joy, and real vigor.
In the slow movement, it was easy at times to forget the piano was there, but Bronfman re-emerged in a big way in the last movement, developing and reshaping much of the polonaise material first introduced by Weilerstein or Braunstein. More friendly ‘competition,’ camaraderie, and joyous music-making.
This was not your typical Emperor! Beethoven’s fondness for E-flat heroics was in evidence, but not at the fore. Bronfman really doesn’t seem to have a showy bone in his body. The opening was all about structure, the piano pyrotechnics in total service to three giant orchestral chords.
With the orchestral exposition, we should not have been surprised, after this past week, at Dohnányi’s non-downbeat-driven approach. With the arrival of Beethoven’s simple and perfect 2nd theme, there were double beats (not four) to the bar, the conductor creating more of a flow of sound than any precise metric sharpness.
Bronfman uncharacteristically rushed a bit at the end of early piano statements. But his statement of the 2nd theme (in b minor), triplets in right hand, dotted half bar rhythm in left, was something extraordinary. Gorgeous phrasing and projection, played so quietly and precisely, filling the hall with a pianissimo.
The aggressive, military 3rd theme (one of Beethoven’s many amazing cellular mutations of another theme, in this case the opening theme) was rendered with rhythmic power in the right hand, and a far bigger emphasis on the szforzandos than we’re accustomed to hearing (then magnified further in the orchestra’s statements of this theme). The descending chromatic scale that lends so much drive and character to this music was given a lighter treatment by Bronfman, but with his usual great projection and clarity.
Beethoven’s signature OCD treatment of a motive was on display when the violas prepared the return of the exposition (recapitulation). Multiple quick repetitions of the triplet motif filled Symphony Hall with an incredibly rich and alive, woody viola sound, the hedonistic equivalent of an homogenized skim milk drinker having fresh cream on his cereal. Good that it lasted only a few seconds, as it would likely have been addictive. Dum, diddle-e-dum-dum DUM, diddle-e-dum-dum DUM… I can hear those violas now.
The return of the opening cadenza, only slightly modified, was treated just a bit more as cadenza, but really all about the three big chords again, creating so much more real tension in the music than what is normally heard in this piece, that is, a bravura display of piano playing.
With the second return of the 2nd theme, Bronfman performed his magic again. But more remarkable was to hear him play this theme in the final cadenza, now in major mode, and in duple rather than triple configuration. The same astonishing projection and articulation of line, but this was not just in-the-moment-playing. Bronfman could only be so effective here with so much structural awareness, and release of built up harmonic tension.
Throughout the first movement in particular, but in all of the Beethoven programs, Dohnányi de-emphasized the “beat,” allowing that Beethoven has provided a strong rhythmic framework that it doesn’t require additional stress. Rather, we heard long, creamy phrases, and large musical gestures, with big arrival points and departures. This was perhaps most evident when the horns once again took ownership of this theme, joining the piano as the final cadenza unfolded, tension now almost totally abated. And we come to realize that the theme, so fully developed—modally, rhythmically, and instrumentally—was written for the horns, who here made of it a beautiful melodic, floating arch, noble sounding. We could see snow melting on the Alps over the forests.
The slow 2nd movement was paced by Dohnányi and Bronfman to reveal structure. Bronfman was always leading to the next harmonic plateau, and keeping a close eye on Dohnányi. With Beethoven’s brilliant use of an Alberti bass accompaniment later in the movement, but high in the piano register to support the orchestra while providing loads of bright color, Bronfman’s playing, soft and almost delicate, really shone.
He presented the joyful German dance that opens the 3rd movement with big, directed chords, contrasting with liquid scales that followed. The dance unfolded with fine flair between orchestra and soloist. Bronfman’s finale roller coaster scales were steely and powerful. He did have some tiny lapses in concentration, getting ahead of himself in places, and one quick moment of panic (memory?) registered in his total body, but there was quick recovery. I can only imagine the toll of playing these six concerti, each more than once, over the span of nine days.
This was some marvelous piano playing, music making on a large and intellectual scale, in perhaps one of the more intimate projections of Beethoven’s most extroverted concertos. Late in the movement, Dohnányi was swinging both arms back and forth in a double pendulum, caught up in the pleasure of the event. We were, too, and a generous standing ovation was rewarded the ensemble, conductor, and, in particular, this splendid pianist.