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Tales from New England, Scotland, and Brahms Second Piano Concerto

02/17/2009 -  & February 18, 19, 2009
Charles Ives : Three Places in New England
Felix Mendelssohn : Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”, opus 56
Johannes Brahms : Piano Concerto No. 2, opus 83

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor)

Whilst Three Places in New England may be Ives’ most popular multi-movement work, that is not to say the piece is a generally popular work. The first movement The “Saint Gardens” in Boston Common is difficult on the ear at first and opens gloomily. Zinman did little to meld together and colour the somewhat turgid fragments which made it difficult to imagine the piece as popular with very many. The second movement Putnam’s Camp almost made amends; whilst the orchestra clearly revelled at the jaunty but disjointed brass band themes, which sounded like Sousa played backwards, the music is neither in the Swiss blood nor temperament and one longed for the same music to be played by the Chicagoers, or any American orchestra for that matter. The final movement The Housatonic at Stockbridge conjures up river mists, autumnal colours, all interwoven in an uneven way. The Tonhalle are famed for their string ensemble and they did not let the side down. Nevertheless the audience was unsure what to make of the piece as a whole and applauded politely, but by no means enthusiastically.

Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony fared better, but not well. The orchestra and Zinman did not particularly distinguish themselves in the exquisite first movement, preferring to delight in the Scherzo, which is a wonderful caprice. The orchestra played with plenty of rustic and joyous charm and some life and spirit returned to the work. The Adagio cantabile allowed the orchestra to meditate languorously but both playing and conducting were unremarkable; only in the final movement did the fleet-footed scampering of the players bring smiles to orchestra, conductor and audience alike. The horn section with their final flourish stood out for worthy special praise.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 is a complex and mature work, even though Brahms sent its score to a friend, the surgeon and violinist Theodore Billroth, describing the work as “some little piano pieces”. In the opening movement, Bronfman immediately brought a mixture of breadth, majesty and breathtaking virtuosity to the piece; Zinman’s orchestral accompaniment never overwhelmed nor tried to compete. Bronfman was clearly also at home in the tumultuous Scherzo, alternating exquisitely between the stormier and quieter sections. The slow movement allowed Bronfman to show off the delicacy of his technique, after a heart-warming cello solo from one of the orchestra’s principal cellists Rafael Rosenfeld. Zinman concluded this massive work with an elegantly crafted Allegretto grazioso.

John Rhodes



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