With Friends Like these...
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Marc-André Dalbavie: Trio Number 1 (World Premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57
Jörg Widmann: XI Humoresken (World Premiere)
P.I. Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50
Yefim Bronfman (piano), Gil Shaham (violin), Lynn Harrell (cello), The Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), David Finckel (cello)
Yefim Bronfman is utterly shameless. Just when I finally put out my mind his tempestuous performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto, he brazenly shows up at Carnegie Hall again, this time with two world premieres and six world-famous friends, all of whom made unforgettable music.
What right does Mr. Bronfman have to be so powerful and so tasteful—and to make it look so easy? One wants to say that his talented chums, Gil Shaham, Lynn Harrell and the Emerson String Quartet, had to help him along. But no, Mr. Bronfman’s powerful hands, his unerring way of dashing down scales at breakneck speed , stopping for a moment to smell the musical flowers, and continuing onto a whirligig of music make him so distinctive.
A scale was exactly how he started off, with the world premiere of French composer Marc-André Dalbavie’s Trio Number 1, with Messrs Shahan and Harrell. Beginning with a series of sforzando notes on the piano, followed by strings taking the same series a half-note lower, the piece worked itself into a whirlwind of scales, going every which way, through canons and repetitions, scales sliding into romantic phrasings, heading back to those original notes and back again.
The war of piano against strings in Mr. Dalbavie’s work was never predictable. The scales would begin with false simplicity, then thicken, then meters would change, the apposition of instruments sending the listener into a vortex—or more appropriately a musical Boolean ribbon from which extraction was difficult.
The following Shostakovich G Minor Piano Quintet was more familiar, but with the Emerson Quartet joining Mr. Bronfman, hardly comforting music. But this was a big work in every sense. Mr. Bronfman drove his opening modal solo to grand effect, with the Emerson following with the same massive sounds. One was mightily thankful that the Stern Audtiorium was the venue here. For some works, the resonance can prove distracting. For the Shostakovich, the echoes were imperative. Per usual, the work embraced a variety of moods. But after the haunting slow movement, the jocular ending was played for all the humor it would allow.
The second world premiere, by the German composer Jörg Widmann, was the only piece for Mr. Bronfman alone. The 11 “humoresques” were based on forms by Robert Schumann with suitably picturesque names. In translations from the original German, they included, “Almost Too Serious”, “Lively At First”, “Steaming Image” and “Song While Dreaming.” The first, “Children’s Song” commenced with the simplicity of Kinderszenen, but immediately became discordant, roaming into more swampy fields. Now those pictorial names were irrelevant, since, at first hearing, they were simply extremely difficult pieces which seemed semi-improvisatory. The final “With Humor and Subtlety” was a good joke, since it included lots of Schumann (and some Chopin?) played upside-down, sideways and wrapped inside themselves. It goes unsaid that Mr. Bronfman didn’t “attack” the music: he knocked it off like he was playing “Chopsticks.”
The final piece was Tchaikovsky’s Trio, with Harrell and Shahan again. The 40-minute two-movement wasn’t long at all, and very very Russian. The variations were based on a serenade by serfs during a picnic (ah, those wonderful days when peasants knew their place!), played with great gusto by all players. Yes, his “friends” are master musicians on their own, but one inevitably imagines that Yefim Bronfman adds the gusto, passion and enthusiasm which levitates them to even loftier heights.