On Saturday night, the New York Philharmonic played a concert featuring Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-born pianist. On the podium was Bramwell Tovey, the British conductor. The concerto was Bartók’s No. 2.
Before the concerto came an overture: that to Smetana’s Bartered Bride. How do you want it? Suspenseful, dashing, precise, lilting, fast, and stylish. The performance on Saturday night had none of that. It had absolutely nothing to commend it.
How should it go, this piece? Try Levine and the Vienna Phil., from 1987, here. This is one of the best orchestral recordings you’ll ever hear (promise).
Back to the Bartók Second. In the 2004–05 season, I heard Bronfman play this concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti. It was one of the most brilliant, jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever heard—of the Bartók Second, yes, but also of any piano concerto.
Last summer at the Salzburg Festival, I did a Q&A podcast with Bronfman (here). He had just played the Brahms B-flat concerto, with the Vienna Phil. He said that, for him, it’s the hardest concerto—even harder than the Bartók Second.
He then explained that a lot depends on when you learn a piece. Everything’s easier when you’re a teenager, he said. He learned the Bartók Second in his teen years. He has been playing it, to acclaim and gasps, ever since.
Saturday night’s performance was not as acclaim-worthy or gasp-making as the one in the same hall thirteen years ago. But it was plenty good.
In the first movement, the pianist needs a blend of the athletic and the lyrical, the heavy and the light. Bronfman had that. Also, I noticed that he pedaled sparsely, leaving no muddle. This was admirable. Yet his playing felt a little dutiful, frankly. And from the orchestra there was no intensity whatsoever.
The audience applauded after the first movement, as well it might. Bronfman—a throwback and a gentleman—acknowledged the applause with a nod and a mouthed “thank you.” Would that others would follow his example.
The second movement began with hushed beauty in the strings. This was the first real music-making of the night, from the orchestra. Between pianist and timpanist, there was nice calibration. Throughout the second movement, Bronfman played with supreme intelligence. He was faithful to the composer. I heard no performer’s personality, just the music. Bronfman wasn’t doing anything to the music. He was just letting it appear through him.
In the finale, Allegro molto, he had just the right savagery and just the right snap. The orchestra was equal to him in its command.
As the audience cheered, Bronfman went to the back of the orchestra and shook hands with the timpanist—a warm, enjoyable gesture. Then he sat down for an encore.
You know how a pop performer will say, “Let’s bring it down now”? How he’ll say it after some exciting, loud music? Bronfman does the same when he plays a Scarlatti sonata, the one in C minor, K. 11 (or L. 352, if you like). That is his go-to encore. He went to it on Saturday night.
And he played it with perfect—perfect—calibration. As usual.
I have one complaint: Bronfman does not take the repeats in this sonata. I’m sure he doesn’t want to try the audience’s patience (or the orchestra’s). But the piece is so short, anyway! Next time, Mr. B., the repeats, please!