Bronfman delivers thunderous Rachmaninoff in Houston Symphony’s season opener

Sun Sep 15, 2019 at 4:31 pm
By Steven Brown
Yefim Bronfman performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Leonard Slatkin and the Houston Symphony Saturday night.

The Houston Symphony’s annual opening-night festivities eased the group back into classical concerts after its late-summer break. In keeping with the orchestra’s tradition, Saturday’s program at Jones Hall was a shortish one — a bit more of an hour of music, prefacing a fundraising ball. 

If the all-Russian concert was relatively brief, guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and the orchestra still gave it style and impact. A sweeping performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman, a veteran player of the work, at the keyboard earned a lot of the credit for that. But the rest of the program contributed, too.

The program began with a relative rarity: Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, a spirited vignette based on two Russian folk tunes. As the violins introduced the sweet-toned first melody, Slatkin guided them through expansive, graceful turns of phrase befitting a wedding song. The more-spirited second theme took hold with a barrage of repetitions of the short, crisp tune. Slatkin and the orchestra’s kaleidoscopic treatment of the theme — by turns vigorous, breezy, sparkling and lusty — kept it alive and vital.

The orchestra’s strings took the spotlight in the “Nocturne” from Alexander Borodin’s Quartet No. 2, arranged by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Led by Slatkin, the players savored Borodin’s lyricism while still giving it flow and ardor. The cellos sang out the main melody — later turned into “And This Is My Beloved” in Broadway’s Kismet — in soft, mellow tones, then the violins made it gleam.

No matter how quiet the “Nocturne” grew, the orchestra gave it fullness and warmth. Slatkin and the group even let a bit of accompaniment — a staccato, rising scale, often in the violins — contribute to Borodin’s poetry. At first, the little scale floated upward gracefully. As the music grew more fervent, though, it grew more insistent, helping drive the whole ensemble’s fire and intensity. After tenderness returned, Slatkin and the players ultimately tapered off Borodin’s song into silence.

That made it all the more arresting when the trumpets’ laser-focused tones delivered the opening fanfare of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. The French horns needed a few seconds to get their response in tune, but by the time all the brasses joined in, their gleam and resonance gave Tchaikovsky’s salute to Italy a powerful setup.

Slatkin and the orchestra made the Capriccio into a series of vivid scenes. The strings’ red-blooded tone and bold strokes made the first section’s brooding into a larger-than-life statement. A more genial mood arrived when the oboes’ lilt — aside from a catch in one note — launched the waltz. The scene grew even cozier as the trumpets took their turn with the waltz, lending it a mellowness that marked a complete switch from the opening flourish. 

As more dance tunes followed, Slatkin gave flavor to each one. With some, he and the orchestra brought out sleekness and buoyancy. But when the tarantella began, abandon began to take over: The orchestra played with eagerness and bite, and the group made a few climactic spots harken back to the explosiveness of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. 

Ultimately, though, the orchestra’s grandeur made the return of the waltz tune into a hymn to Italy’s splendors, and Slatkin drove everything with a decisive but non-histrionic podium style. 

Pianist Bronfman played the notoriously challenging Rachmaninoff concerto with an equal absence of visual hullabaloo. At times, whether Bronfman was intoning the first movement’s simple opening theme or spinning out streams of filigree, his hands seemed to hardly move. But a surging, colorful performance emerged nevertheless. 

Starting with the muted beginning, Slatkin and Bronfman built momentum gradually. Sometimes melodies sang out from the piano or orchestra; sometimes the keyboard’s swirling embellishments took the spotlight; sometimes the orchestra’s power punctuated a big moment.

Bronfman gave tenderness and texture to the piano’s solo reveries, but he also kept the music moving, so that its lyricism blossomed. When he reached the first movement’s cadenza — playing the bigger, more booming of Rachmaninoff’s two options — Bronfman finally brought sheer visceral impact to the fore, turning chords and flourishes into grand dramatic gestures. 

The orchestra’s richness set the scene for the slow movement, and the winds welled up later like a resonant choir. Bronfman relished the lyricism, but he gave it an impetus that brought out its yearning and made sense of the keyboard outbursts that result. 

And when Bronfman sprinted into action in the finale, the sheer fluency of his playing let the music exude vigor and exuberance rather than laborious effort. He and Slatkin added a contrasting touch of spaciousness when the sleeker secondary theme appeared, but they let the same melody surge when it returned later, pressing toward the climax.

Amid all the action, Bronfman and Slatkin got fleetingly out of sync once or twice, but everyone pulled together quickly, and the orchestra by and large complemented Bronfman’s drive and power. After a last salvo of energy from Bronfman started the drive to the close, the orchestra’s heft and gleam made the big finish hit home. 

Rachmaninoff’s heroics brought yet another audience to its feet. Then Bronfman calmed everyone down as his encore — a gentle, simple account of Frederic Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 — ended the night on a more peaceful note. 

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the Houston Symphony in Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Violin Concerto (with soloist Leonidas Kavakos) and The Firebird. 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at Jones Hall.

One Response to “Bronfman delivers thunderous Rachmaninoff in Houston Symphony’s season opener”

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2019 at 6:23 pm by Shane

    I missed Bronfman’s “tenderness and texture” but certainly heard “drive and power” because most of the piece imo was brought to its “sheer visceral impact” as much as possible. So much different than Trifonov’s incredible handling of Rachmaninoff concerto no2 a few years ago.

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