Bronfman returns and brings Mahler with him

November 28, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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He saw him rehearse the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra…now Fraser Beath McEwing reviews the concert itself.

The third and fourth scenes in the Bronfman saga. Read scenes 1 and 2 here.

Scene 3

Yefim Bronfman   Photographed by Henry Benjamin

Yefim Bronfman Photographed by Henry Benjamin

It’s the day after editor Henry and I had interviewed Russian/Israeli/American pianist, Yefim Bronfman, below decks in the Sydney Opera House. Before that, we’d been invited to his final rehearsal of Brahms first piano concerto.

Today we’re back in the concert hall for the first of four performances of the Brahms coupled with Mahler’s first symphony. The conductor is Donald Runnicles, a Scot I already admire.

Instead of only three people in the audience, we are siting in the dress circle of a full house. This is a Thursday afternoon concert and, like us, most of the audience saw their 60th birthdays some time ago. It also makes them genuine music lovers rather than social gatherers.

The question that comes to mind is whether there will be a difference between the rehearsal and the performance. Will a big audience stir the loins of Bronfman and the orchestra to a different take on the Brahms first piano concerto?

The lights go down. Silence settles. The last cough is dispatched. Bronfman and Runnicles stride on to the stage to an enthusiastic welcome. Runnicles mounts and Bronfman sits. Bronfman is a big man, but looks even bigger because he sits on a padded stool that has been raised on substantial blocks. He makes the piano look small by comparison and his hand position is so high that he plays largely on the tips of his fingers.

He looks quite different to yesterday. Gone is the knockabout gear, now replaced by formal black. His dishevelled hair (which I rather liked) has been brushed back, exposing his broad forehead. He looks formidable as he waits for his entry after a long introduction.

Immediately I notice a difference. While the rehearsal was masterful, the performance is passionate. Bronfman is animated as he wades into the daunting technical demands of this concerto. This Steinway piano (which the told us he loves playing) is responding to colours that were not so evident yesterday. The orchestra seems to have caught the passion too, right from a more lively tympani lead-in to some honeyed horn playing. Noticeably, whereas yesterday the piano and orchestra didn’t always hit the bullseye together, this time they are winners in the Siamese race.

As they turn the corner for home in the third movement I feel the skin move on my back – a sign that there is something more than written notes being played here. Bronfman lays into his final passages with abandon and the concerto finishes in a shower of sparks. The audience roars its approval, not realising how much they were part of the music.

Scene 4

Interval sees the magnificent Steinway stowed in the wings while more chairs are brought in to seat the many additional players that Mahler’s first symphony demands. Gustav didn’t hold back on the equipment. On to the stage come players bearing eight horns, four flutes, four clarinets, four trumpets, two tympani and other percussion, three trombones and a harp. The string section is up to pussy’s bow too.

Mahler sweated over his first symphony, first presenting it as a symphonic poem in two parts, then as a program symphony, after which he lopped off one of the movements. The form in which we have it today is still far from a bland list of movement numbers and tempi, but its quaint directions are endearing. It’s not short either, giving little change out of an hour.

With the stage almost overflowing with firepower, we’d be forgiven for expecting some start-up volume. While we get that eventually, the opening is neck-craning and wispy, although it does contain embryo motifs that play hide and seek later in the symphony, so we must listen and remember.

One delicious moment in the third movement is an unexpected duo between tympani and solo double bass, while another comes towards the end of the fourth movement when the eight horn players (following Gustav’s instructions) stand up blow themselves inside out in a visual as well as musical display.

If you asked average concertgoers to hum some themes from Mahler’s first, few could do it, yet once the symphony starts you realise it is an old friend. And, of course, Gustav loved a big finish. His first symphony pumps itself up to a grand blowout. Runnicles is clearly stirred as he leaps to show daylight between his soles and the podium and I, for one, am with him. He’s a Mahler gold medallist.

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