A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about names: what we call certain pieces of music. A lot of us say “the Bruch Violin Concerto,” even though Max Bruch wrote three of them. We mean No. 1, the familiar one. Similarly, we say “the Shostakovich Violin Concerto,” even though that master wrote two. We mean, again, No. 1.
So it is with “the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.” There’s no question what we mean: No. 1 (again), the concerto in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Yet there is a second one: the Piano Concerto in G major, Op. 44. It is markedly inferior to the first. It is full of bombast and nonsense—chaff. And yet there is wheat, wonderful Russian wheat, especially in the concluding rondo (Allegro con fuoco). It is a folkish, delightsome romp. I like it very much.
It has something in common with the rondo that concludes Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Also, you could think of it as like the rondo in Beethoven’s own G-major piano concerto—but gone nuts. Stark-raving, Romantically mad.
Yefim Bronfman played this concerto with the New York Philharmonic on Saturday night. On the podium was Semyon Bychkov.
Longtime readers of The New Criterion may remember a performance by Mikhail Pletnev, back in the 2001–02 season. I have referred to it from time to time. It was one of the most amazing pianistic performances I have ever witnessed.
It was note-perfect. Studio-perfect. Moreover, it was musical, as musical as it could be. Let me give a quick excerpt from my review:
“In the cadenza, Pletnev was dizzyingly fast, yet eerily accurate. I made a quick mental list of the finger-men—the ‘supervirtuosos’—I have witnessed over the years: Horowitz, Richter, Weissenberg, Berman, Watts, Wild, Argerich, Kissin, Volodos: this guy can make them look like Adagio players.”
Have I mentioned that Pletnev played in Carnegie Hall? He did. Almost fifteen seasons later, Denis Matsuev played the same concerto in the same hall. He was burlier than Pletnev, sweatier. But he too was impressive, and thunderously so. (My comments on the performance are contained in this “chronicle.”)
Now to Saturday night, and Yefim Bronfman. In the first movement, he was easy and elegant. This concerto—which is crazily hard—was almost a Clementi sonatina to him. At his worst, he was dutiful, perfunctory. At his best, he was lively, in addition to virtuosic. His octaves were well-nigh Horowitzian. Also, he did what he could to curtail the music’s bombast.
Is it worth learning? Is it worth learning the Concerto No. 2, as hard as it is? Is there enough of a musical pay-off? I think so, thanks to the rondo. But I also think it’s a close call.
In the middle movement, Andante non troppo, Bronfman was simple. I appreciated his willingness to be simple. Also, he showed a particular talent of his.
Over the years, I have spoken of Bronfman’s “weightedness.” His sense of weight. He knows what weight to apply to each note. This is not the commonest of gifts. And, in Tchaikovsky’s second movement, I noticed that Bronfman was giving all the lines the right weight. Top lines, middle lines, bottom lines. (I am not referring to business.) He was like a conductor, keeping the parts of the orchestra in balance.
About Bronfman in the rondo, I have a complaint: he could have played it more impishly, more fiendishly. The movement was a little elegant for me. A little gentlemanly. But, let’s face it, what a pianist.
I cannot improve on my colleague Martin Bernheimer, who wrote that “to call him a master is a silly understatement.”