On Thursday evening The Cleveland Orchestra, with music director Franz Welser-Möst, opened a four-evening mini-festival (two programs, each repeated) focusing on the music of Johannes Brahms. The series had a couple of unusual features: no symphonies, and, on the second program Saturday and Sunday, an extended solo organ “prelude” of music by Brahms and Johann Sebastian Bach by the American organist Paul Jacobs. Legendary pianist Yefim Bronfman was the featured soloist of both programs, playing the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat major, Op.83 on Thursday and Friday, with the Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, Op.15, on Saturday and Sunday. I heard Thursday's concert.

Yefim Bronfman © Dario Acosta
Yefim Bronfman
© Dario Acosta

The concert was recorded for future television and DVD release. There were multiple cameras spread throughout the auditorium, including a huge boom that zoomed in over the orchestra and well out over the audience at various times. It was remarkably intrusive, and I laud the orchestra members for keeping their concentration when it suddenly swooped in on them like a raptor about to feed.

The 1873 Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a, which theme, often known as the “St Anthony Chorale,” was not in fact by Haydn, but by one Carl Ferdinand Pohl, opened the program with graceful elegance, from the opening statement of the theme in the winds to the majestic full orchestra at the conclusion. Brahms treats his theme freely; at times all that remains is the harmonic framework. The fourth variation is in a minor key; at other points, the melody is displaced over a wide range. Welser-Möst kept things moving briskly.

The Cleveland Orchestra has played the Brahms' Tragic Overture often over the past year, so it was a logical for it to fill a spot on this program being preserved and released commercially. Brahms wrote his Tragic Overture in tandem with the Academic Festival Overture in 1880 as sign of gratitude for an honorary doctoral degree awarded to him by the University of Breslau. Unlike the buoyant and uplifting Academic Festival, with its cheeky humor, the Tragic is in a minor key; it is serious and dramatic, but not a dirge. Drama was the essence of this performance, which often seemed driven, sacrificing potential opportunities for shaping phrases. It was dispatched with efficiency rather than tragedy.

These reservations were swept away, however, by the magisterial performance of the Second Piano Concerto. It is one of the fearsome peaks of the piano repertoire, a long, four-movement concerto in which the soloist almost never stops playing. From the opening horn solo, beautifully played by principal horn Richard King, and Yefim Bronfman's first entrance one had the sense that this was a special performance. There was thrilling playing by both orchestra and soloist. Quite often the solo piano is subsumed into the orchestral texture, providing decoration on the orchestra's music, but then pounding out on its own. Bronfman has an enormous range of sound, from huge, thrusting chords to fragile-sounding filigree. The second movement was alternately heroic and refined, with extremes of emotion. (I realized midway through this performance that the music-making was so compelling that I had lost track of the annoying boom camera.)

The highlight of the evening was the third movement Andante, with its exquisite cello solo played by principal Mark Kosower, accompanied by low strings and later with a violin obbligato. There was a nicely-judged oboe/cello passage, all before the solo piano entered. Bronfman's playing here had an improvisatory sense to it, with flexibility of pulse and rubato, which Welser-Möst and the orchestra matched. Balances between orchestra and soloist were excellent throughout, including the passages in which the piano merges with the orchestra.

The fourth movement Rondo, with its echoes of Hungarian music, danced its way to conclusion. The final chord was drowned out by shouts and applause, with hornist Richard King and cellist Mark Kosower receiving deserved solo bows. But Yefim Bronfman was the star, here reinforcing his reputation as one of the great pianists of our time.

****1