The highlight of tonight's New York Philharmonic concert – at least for me – was the brilliant performance by Yefim Bronfman of Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83 – a real triumphant performance. Bronfman has always impressed me in the past — his Peoples' Symphony Recital was a major highlight of the last concert season — and his recordings have provided great satisfaction, but I was truly overwhelmed with his performance tonight. He really "gets" this concerto and plays it with enthusiasm, power, delicacy, grace, determination…. It's one of those multifarious pieces that calls for all of these qualities, sometimes even embracing opposites simultaneously, and he rose to every challenge.
Guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi seemed charged up on the podium by Bronfman's presence, exhibiting much more verve and enthusiasm than he had during the first half of the concert, which began with Jorg Widmann's 2008 Con Brio Overture and continued with Robert Schumann's 4th Symphony, Op. 120. The Widmann Overture had many interesting sounds, but I still don't get the attraction of tuneless music. Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I've always hoped for melody in my music, and I don't hear much of any in Widmann's piece. Perhaps it's there and I'm just not hearing it, but without a melody and its developmental adventures to follow, I tend to lose interest in a piece. Schumann, by contrast, was a great melodist, and his much-worked-over 4th Symphony, which took a decade and multiple versions to complete, is a truly great work, but I found tonight's performance a bit lacking in vital energy, leaving me with a matter-of-fact impression.
But none of that for the Brahms. Brahms was truly one of the greatest geniuses of musical composition. Each of the four movements of this concerto has its special flavor, but I think my favorite is the finale, one of the most graceful and inventive pieces Brahms ever wrote. I also thrilled to the intense drama of the second movement — which Brahms deceptively referred to in correspondence as a "tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo" — and the ethereal songfulness of the third, where NYP principal cellist Carter Brey made the most of his big solo moments. There is a moment towards the end of this movement when Brahms seems to make time stand still and everything is suspended by the slowly unfolding piano line…. just magical. The first movement has always given me some trouble, as it seems very episodic and I have trouble feeling it as an organic whole like the other three movements. But tonight's performance was very convincing, and Philip Myers' luscious performance of the opening horn calls set a beautiful tone for the entire performance.
Despite my disappointment with the Widmann piece, I thought the concert overall a big success and was glad to be there.