David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
12/27/2017 - & December 28, 29*, 30, 2017
Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2, Sz. 95
Modest Mussorgsky : Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Bramwell Tovey (conductor)
“Mussorgsky, on the other hand, flaunts his illiteracy and is proud of his ignorance. So he dashes off whatever comes, hit or miss...a sad spectacle!”
Tchaikovsky, letter to Madame von Meck, January 5, 1878
How do they do it? How did the New York Philharmonic know at least a year and a half in advance that it would be bitter cold on the last week of the year? The little computer in my pocket has given up on the usual symbols and projects instead an ice-encrusted thermometer. Ghastly, but perfect weather for a Mussorgsky concert! It is Christmas week and the streets and concert halls of New York are filled to capacity in this case listening to one of the few year-round orchestras in America. Certainly many of the regulars were away in their mangers, but the David Geffen stage was filled with eager musicians. The only question was would we be unwrapping a resplendent jewel or just another lump of coal?
Of course, we all have our different ways of listening to music, but may I suggest an enhancement to the experience of hearing Pictures at an Exhibition in either piano or orchestrated version? Think of the locale as the Guggenheim and in so doing emphasizing the importance of the journey from one canvas to another. Of course, Mussorgsky had never heard of this wondrous place where, if you start at the top, there is a certain slow version of an amusement park ride in your downward journey, but perhaps he might have been too modest to mention this connection in any case.
But first, those balmy places Bohemia and Hungary. Bedrich Smetana is the second best deaf composer in music history. Come to think of it, he was exposed to a considerable amount of cold weather himself as he took a position as music professor in Sweden. His most famous work is the opera The Bartered Bride and its most famous part is the overture. The orchestra sounded great with Sheryl Staples as concertmaster (I am still on the fence about Robert Huang) and the troops really dug in to the excitement – almost savage in nature – surrounding this mythical tale. Clearly a good start.
I once had the great pleasure of meeting György Sándor, who is forever linked to the Bartók concertos - with great European chivalry he stated that I was much too young to have ever heard of him – but even he did not play as animatedly and forcefully as Yefim Bronfman this night. To illustrate this Herculean effort with a metaphor, when the performance was over Mr. Bronfman came out, journeyed to the back of the stage, and shook hands with the tympani player. In this version of the famous concerto the piano was treated as the percussion instrument that it truly is, Bronfman’s touch not only astoundingly accurate but atavistic, primitive in its barbarity and ability to communicate forcibly. The second adagio was chillingly magnificent. With summer in the parks conductor Bramwell Tovey at the helm the ensemble was suitably relegated to the accompaniment, but embraced their role quite vehemently. A striking performance.
When my younger son was about eight we had dinner one evening in a Russian restaurant where there was a piano player on duty. My boy went up to him and asked if he could play the Great Gate of Kiev. The man had no idea what that was!
With five percussionists and celeste, this realization of Mussorgsky’s pictures was more a photographic exhibit in a major gallery than a slide projection in a neighbor’s house. I have a personal connection to this piece as my grandmother, Fanny Kirshnitz, for whom I was named, was born and raised in Kiev. Overall this was a fine reading although there were parts that simply got away from them. I have a dear friend that once wrote of a performance that “their chicks took too long to hatch”, whereas in this rendition the eggs seemed a little scrambled and somewhat runny! Still the “old castle” was suitably mysterious and exotic and the “hut on chicken feet” was eerily chilling. One question though: can these substitute players be considered for full-time membership?