Vienna is an absolutely magical place during the Holiday season. Christmas markets pop up throughout the city, a splendid holiday lighting scheme dominates the downtown area, and ice skaters warmed by Glühwein and Punsch spin around rinks at the Rathaus as well as next to the Konzerthaus. Inside, programming shifts to suit the season as well, and for this season’s “Weihnachtskonzert” (Christmas concert) the Symphoniker and Philippe Jordan joined forces for the first time with pianistic powerhouse Yefim Bronfman in an interesting program of Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Jordan © JF Leclercq
Philippe Jordan
© JF Leclercq

Bronfman’s first dance with the Symphoniker was to Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, a work whose popularity has been dwarfed by that of his First, but which the composer himself preferred. Dedicated to Nikolai Rubinstein, whose criticism of the First was such a burn it probably left scars. Rubinstein reviewed the Second cautiously and agreed to be soloist at its première. He died suddenly in 1881, however, so the concerto was finally premiered in Russia by the pianist Sergei Tanayev with Nikolai’s brother, Anton Rubinstein, conducting.  

Bronfman attacked the concerto with alacrity and a capacity to draw sound from the piano which is breathtaking. Bursting impatiently out of the gate, Bronfman fairly blazed through it, and the numerous solo sections in the first movement were astounding, if not the cleanest ever heard. Occasionally I would have preferred more tenderness and enjoyment of the more intimate moments, but Bronfman’s line and intention never faltered. The second movement, which often feels like a triple concerto featuring violin and cello along with piano, included many beautiful moments, without ever edging on the saccharine, and the fiery final movement was a display of steel fingers and flying chords. Indeed, next to Bronfman’s intention and bite, Jordan’s erudite grace in how he leads the orchestra often felt as if it lacked teeth, like orchestra and soloist were playing in completely different genres.

The second half of the event featured a much more well-known Tchaikovsky composition, Act II of his perennially popular ballet The Nutcracker. The Symphoniker was much more at home here, especially through the engaging character dances. Who doesn’t recognize the celesta in The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances not only offer a splendid variety of instrumental color but have themes so varied in feeling and so consistently beautiful that they cannot help but impress. The gracefully whirling “Waltz of the Flowers” was the absolute high point, and the several movements which followed seemed anti-climactic, though this is not so much a weakness of interpretation but of compositional arc when the work is performed without the dancers and optical elements for which it was envisioned. The encore, the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” which ends the first act, seemed likewise a bit out of place, but still very enjoyable.

In grand total, for a hall filled with tired and/or eager holiday shoppers, this concert had exactly what was needed: a renowned and powerful soloist, a charming orchestra, and beautiful music, both relatively unknown and as natural as the scent of pine and gingerbread.