It is a pleasure to report on a great concert. And yesterday morning, there was a great concert at the Salzburg Festival. It took place in the Great Festival Hall, and it was played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra—with a little help: on the podium was Riccardo Muti; serving as piano soloist was Yefim Bronfman.
The program consisted of two very familiar works, one by Brahms, the other by Tchaikovsky. The first was Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; the second was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Don’t hold it against those works that they are very familiar.
The piano concerto begins with a horn solo, whose first note was almost flubbed—but only almost: the VPO’s player held on to it. He proceeded to play the rest of the notes with control and beauty. As for the pianist, he played his initial passages perfectly—with perfect fluidity, timing, and weight.
Writing about Bronfman, I often speak of “weightedness”: the ability to apply just the right weight to notes and phrases. Bronfman has a remarkable sense of this, possibly inborn. Relatedly, he almost never commits a bad accent.
In the first movement of the Brahms, he played with extraordinary delicacy, and with bear-like strength. The music is like that. It demands both qualities. And when Bronfman is being bear-like, he plays from the shoulders, not banging or slapping.
On the whole, this first movement was relaxed, rounded, and elegant. There was no struggle in it (as there often is, from the pianist). With his virtuosity, Bronfman had no trouble managing the notes. He played the first movement of this titanic concerto basically as he would a Brahms intermezzo or ballade. Easy-peasy.
He always showed you where the melody was, amid the composer’s blizzard of notes. It was either in the middle of the blizzard or on top of it. Moreover, Bronfman was never obnoxious in this showing of the melody. It appeared naturally.
On the podium, Muti was alive, fully alive: to the score, to the orchestra, to the soloist—to everything. He conducted, and the VPO played, with warmth, correctness, and nobility. Everyone involved was both Classical and Romantic, just like the concerto, and just like Brahms in general.
The second movement is marked “Allegro appassionato.” Yesterday morning, in my opinion, it was too much like the first movement. There was too little contrast between the first movement and the second. I like the second movement more furious, more intense. Yesterday, there was insufficient tension, in my judgment.
In the next movement, the Andante, Muti set an excellent tempo—blessedly unslow. The music could breathe. The cello soloist played beautifully and—this is critical—unsentimentally. The oboe made an admirable contribution as well.
And then there was Bronfman, of course. Toward the end of the movement, he calibrated those raindrops—those raindropping notes—perfectly.
The rondo, which closes the concerto? It was by turns playful and huge, just as Brahms intended.
Lately, I’ve been complaining that encores after concertos have become all too common: de rigueur. They used to be special. Nowadays, it seems almost an insult to the soloist if there is no encore.
Bronfman, to his credit, played no encore. (He usually favors a particular Scarlatti sonata.) The Brahms B-flat had been enough. He was also reluctant to take bows, especially solo bows. Riccardo Muti physically pushed him back out onto the stage.
At the festival, Muti has been conducting Aida, the Verdi opera. When he comes out at the beginning, he turns to the audience and they go nuts. He abruptly turns to the orchestra, silencing the crowd. This happens at the beginning of subsequent acts too. Muti won’t let the ovation go on.
So it was after intermission at yesterday morning’s concert. Muti came out to conduct the Tchaikovsky Fourth. He turned to the audience. They roared with bravos. He immediately turned to the orchestra and gave the downbeat, launching the symphony.
The VPO brass players were big—very big. But unblaring. The brass are key in this symphony, but then so are the woodwinds, as in virtually every Tchaikovsky orchestral piece. The VPO players never disappointed.
As he had been in the Brahms, Muti was alive, fully alive. There was never a sense of autopilot or routine. Muti was positively stylish. Tchaikovsky asks that his first movement be played “con anima”—with spirit, or soul. It certainly was. Also, Muti showed me some things in the score I had never quite noticed: a descending scale in the brass, for example.
Overall, this first movement was sonically sumptuous, technically correct, and musically exciting. What more do you want?
The second movement, that symphonic song, begins with an oboe solo. Once more, the VPO’s player was superb. (He also looks a bit like an oboe, if I may.) As the music continued, it was smoothly sculpted by Muti, but not micromanaged. He conducted, and the orchestra played, as if it mattered a lot. There was unusual passion in this playing.
Also, the pizzicatos were together—always a minor miracle, and sometimes not so minor.
Speaking of pizzicatos: The third movement, the Scherzo, is a study in pizzicatos. And the VPO put on a clinic in how to do it. They were eerily precise, and the music had a sweeping excitement. Most exciting, perhaps, were the piano pizzicatos—the softest ones (soft and fleet).
The strings aren’t the only story in this scherzo. The clarinet played some nice licks. And the piccolo was sparkling and daring—almost dangerous. The ending of the Scherzo was enjoyably matter-of-fact, with Muti executing it just right.
And the Finale? “Con fuoco,” says Tchaikovsky. And his music was indeed on fire. Muti squeezed and pulled maximum drama out of it. In the closing bars, he did a little jump. I mean, a physical jump, on the podium. And the ending chords were big, fat, and inarguable.
As I said, it is a pleasure to report on a great concert. It sort of reaffirms your faith in what can be achieved, with intelligence, talent, and discipline.
A footnote: In years past, the VPO has been known for inhospitality to women. Yesterday morning, the concertmaster was a concertmistress.