It is always a treat to witness the kind of seasoned brilliance a veteran performer can bring to a monumental composition. Yefim Bronfman has had Rachmaninov’s monstrous masterpiece of melody, Russian melancholy and virtuosic fireworks in his wheelhouse for decades, and it shows. He performed the behemoth that is the Third Piano Concerto with a degree of sovereignty and sense for dramatic architecture both rare and wonderful to experience. Bronfman’s many pianistic gifts, including undeniable lyric sensibility, were on display from the first singing tones of the opening melody. He then ruminated, sang and punctuated through all the twists, turns and snares of Rachmaninov’s epic romantic journey, finally emerging into the fortissimo fireworks and virtuosic orgasm that close the work 45 minutes later like a force of nature, his sound crashing over the hundreds of pews in the golden temple, transforming audience members into willing and eager manufacturers of applause, and bringing many to their feet – a rare sight in Vienna. For his encore, Bronfman tossed off the final movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata like it was daily bread that he still relished eating. 

Lahav Shani © Marco Borggreve
Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve

Conductor Lahav Shani, I could not help thinking, must feel so lucky to put together performances with such a giant of classical music. And then I slapped myself for being ageist, because Shani — despite his scant 31 years — is a prodigy but also a burgeoning giant in his own right. Principal Guest Conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker, accomplished concert pianist, heir to Zubin Mehta at the Israel Philharmonic, the youngest principal conductor in the history of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and mentored by Barenboim – reading Shani’s biography is guaranteed to make you wonder if you could not be doing more with your life. He guided the Symphoniker around the Rachmaninov with ease, then gave them a chance to strut their stuff in Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. 

The Ninth is generally remembered for being seen as a disgraceful slap in the face to Stalin. Composed in the summer of 1945, a few short months after the end of the Second World War, Shostakovich was expected to produce a massive tribute to the Soviet victory against Hitler, a work worthy of comparison with Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead of a large-scale, grand opus filled with choirs, soloists, pomp and pride, Shostakovich wrote a diminutive work filled with subtle scherzos and catchy melodies which is over in less than 30 minutes. Stalin, surprisingly present for the premiere on 3rd November 1945 in Moscow, was reportedly furious. A half century later and not being in Stalin’s position, we have the luxury of appreciating the the Ninth for its merry opening, its transparent, eerie second movement, for the quirky circus which comes to town in the finale and for its giving the Symphoniker woodwinds, in particular, opportunities to shine (flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe and bassoon soloists – bravi!). All the light, tuneful melodies and tuttis are still somehow Shostakovich, but a Shostakovich during a rare period where he seems to be taking antidepressants. The Ninth is almost cheerful, and was certainly out of step with its time, but very welcome in ours.

In summation, a glorious evening of musical giants, precocious prodigies and merry miniatures. What more could one ask for?

****1