Review: ISO Classical Series Program No. 9

Pianist Yefim Bronfman

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Jan. 5-7

The first full January weekend was warm, and the Circle a bit more crowded than might have been expected. Was it the

weather or the three program choices which made the difference? For me, the

reappearance of guest conductor and Briton, Mark Wigglesworth, made a

significant difference and always has since his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

debut about a decade ago. This time, he was joined by Georgian (Republic of)

guest pianist Yefim Bronfman to end the program with Brahms' huge, granitic

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83. Preceding it were two other

repertoire favorites: Sibelius's "The Swan of Tuonela" from Four Legends of the Kaleval√°. Op. 22 (1893) and Sir Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original

Theme ("Enigma," 1899).

Among the Finnish composer's most popular pieces, "The Swan"

is famous for its extended English horn solo, beautifully realized by ISO

acting principal Timothy Clinch. Moreover, Clinch

showed his easy conversational ability in the pre-concert Words on Music, in

discussing with host Michael Toulouse the challenges double-reed woodwind

players (i.e. oboe, English horn, bassoon, contrabassoon) have in their

constant battle with their own reed making - and its necessary frequency.

Wigglesworth's orchestra held its end of the bargain in conveying Sibelius's

wistful mood with finely shaped balance.

Elgar's most popular orchestral mainstay is a set of 14

variations on a theme which he maintains is elusive, or even "can't be heard" - hence, the "Enigma." Yet I read years ago, before realizing

it myself, that there appears throughout a very short motive which directly

borrows from the second theme of Mozart's Andante from his three-movement "Prague"

Symphony (No. 38 in D). I hear this repeated through the "Enigma's" half-hour

span. Could the composer's thematic reference have been that obvious, or was it

merely an accident, having nothing to do with Elgar's "theme"? We'll never

know.

In any case, Elgar's variations are suggestive of his many

friends in upper British society - starting with his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar - to all of whom he attaches a short descriptive commentary. The ninth, or

"Nimrod," variation is the loveliest and perhaps most famous. But all 14,

including the flashy, triumphal coda showed our orchestra at its best,

Wigglesworth deserving much of the credit.

Brahms wrote two equally famous piano concertos, both at the

creative summit of his works for large forces. What is noteworthy about them is

that they were written 23 years apart: No. 1 in 1858, when Brahms was only 25, and No. 2 in 1881, around when he produced most of his

other mature symphonic output, including his four symphonies and his Violin

Concerto. Unusually, No. 2 contains four movements, with a scherzo inserted

between the opening and slow movements. The latter Andante, with its extended

cello solo writing, defining a captivating theme before the piano gets it, is

surely as beautiful as they come from the Romantic era.

As performances go, following the Sibelius and the Elgar,

this Brahms disappointed. Bronfman, although possessing a flashy, note-sure

technique, tended to smear his pianistic display with overpedaling, muddying

his textures and burying many of his leading lines. The orchestra surprisingly

seemed to follow suit, making each of the four movements sound like one, long,

uninterrupted phrase. Perry Scott's cello playing in the Andante was the

performance's brightest spot.

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