Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 2 and Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. Both solidly—not to mention stolidly—popular works. Safe programming choices. Maybe too safe. Both works are well loved. Well worn, too. Think of the Brahms. Every pianist of note that has ever lived (and will ever live) has recorded and played it. Can you blame the listener if they cringe just a little at the sight of the program and groan "not again?"

Bronfman © Oded Antman
Bronfman
© Oded Antman

And no offense to Brahms. It's a great concerto; hasn't survived in the repertoire this long for nothing. But most pianists are pleased to drain out all the vitality of the piece, instead focusing solely on surface beauty, and making of this magnificent work a 45-minute (if you're lucky) wall-to-wall snore.

But Yefim Bronfman, who performed the concerto at the Hollywood Bowl last Tuesday, isn't like most pianists. His previous appearance in Los Angeles, as a guest with the visiting New York Philharmonic, had him tackling the complexity of Magnus Lindberg's new piano concerto. A demonstration of an unusually wide palate and musical intellect. A rarity in an age where vapid, but attractive, young pianists are peddled aggressively to gullible audiences.

Guest conductor Lionel Bringuier was his fine musical collaborator.

It took only a few bars for Bronfman to make clear that his audience wouldn't be nodding off to sleep. The beautiful, chamber-like interplay between horn (played majestically by Eric Overholt) immediately signaled a rendition to remember. Not that there weren't problems. Stiffness of nuance and gesture afflicted the first movement. The timpanist's choice of sticks prevented his part from blending in with the orchestral texture and reinforcing the harmony. The scherzo was better, though too-soft string attacks dampened the effect of the trio. When principal Tao Ni's tender, eloquent cello opened the third movement, the dynamic between soloist and orchestra finally gelled.

There is a rough-hewn quality—think of a peasant woodcut—to Bronfman's tone, that is ideal for Brahms. Powerful and brilliant, but never flashy. He knew when to draw out the symphonic as well as concertante aspects of the work. Immersing itself into the musical texture and then arising heroically from it when needed.

After intermission Bringuier led the orchestra in a swift, though never hurried rendition of the Enigma Variations. The famous "Nimrod" variation was the centerpiece of this performance. Free of excess sentiment; never distended in tempo or rhythm. It was Elgar "American style," all primary colors.

For those expecting to catch up on their sleep, last Tuesday's concert must have brought some welcome insomnia.