A concert programme that featured CPE Bach, Brahms and Widmann certainly promised a serious kind of variety. Pianist Yefim Bronfman is no stranger to the San Francisco Symphony having made his debut with them in 1981. Last night, he returned to play Widmann’s Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra in its US première, a work co-commissioned by the SFS with the piano solo part written for Bronfman himself. This, combined with a rarely performed CPE Bach symphony and a significant serving of Brahms made for a colourful night.

Michael Tilson-Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson-Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

The evening started with CPE Bach’s Symphony in D major. It was a refreshing opener and the SFS was on fine form. In the first movement Allegro di molto, rapid notes were executed well by the strings and passing arpeggio motifs were passed down from the first violins down to cellos in a wonderfully coordinated fashion. It’s quite a string-heavy movement thus making the second movement a pleasant shift. In the Largo there were solo lines from first and second flutes (Tim Day and Robin McKee respectively), the viola (Jonathan Vinocour) and cello (Peter Wyrick) with pizzicato lines from the violins, combining to make an exquisite and elegant quieter movement. The third movement then unfolded returning to the rapid notes from the first movements in strings which were again done with convincing unity.

Trauermarsch or ‘Funeral March’ is a relatively new work, only composed in 2014. It’s a satisfyingly turbulent work where for the most part the sound produced is not easily traced back to an instrument or two but more a whole canvas of timbres to be enjoyed as a whole. It’s titled as a work for piano and orchestra, and certainly there are solo lines for the piano but often the piano would sink behind the brass and percussion which made me question the balance of the whole piece. There are various percussion instruments that are less often featured such as the water gong and waterphone which added interesting colours and textures into the piece. The material itself is somewhat reminiscent of Rachmaninov, with sections in it that reminded me of his Third Symphony and his Prelude in C sharp minor, certainly the main motif seems to follow almost the exact contour of the prelude. It’s a highly evocative piece with certain parts quite ghost-like and others conjuring serenity, all in line with its title. This was certainly an interesting piece, and one which I think requires multiple hearing in order to fully capture its depth.

The second half of the night was dedicated to Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor. This was a significant achievement for Brahms, being rather at the older end of the age spectrum at 43 when he finished his First, as well as having declared that he would never write a symphony. On that note, if Brahms did want to prove himself, this symphony certainly did that with dramatic and lyrical motifs contained in all the movements. The weightiness of the opening movement was well captured at a comfortable tempo. It was a tense movement with a melancholy oboe solo played exquisitely by Eugene Izotov. The second movement then provided a mesmerizingly peaceful reprieve. The trio of solo violin (Alexander Barantschik), horn (Robert Ward) and oboe (Eugene Izotov) was particularly beautiful with lyrical melodies that seemed to soar out of the instruments.

The third movement then followed with a genial character. At times, I felt the strings may have been a little too overpowering in this movement such that the featured wind solos weren’t as audible. This geniality was heavily contrasted in the fourth movement by the return of the weightiness felt at the opening of the symphony. This was the longest movement of the symphony and had its star moments at various points. The horn solo which brought a welcome comfort to the tension was beautiful but seemed to be competing with the strings. I also felt as though the pace of this final movement could be a bit faster as at times it seems to fall into a sort of a lull. However, this didn’t seem to affect the way the symphony ended with the orchestra rising to an exuberant and much happier finish.