An all-Beethoven program is a guaranteed hit, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra proves it once again in their concerts this weekend at Overture Hall. The program will be repeated tonight, March 8, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, March 9, at 2:30 p.m.
Success is even more certain when the program offers soloist Yefim Bronfman, who is emerging as one of the premier pianists of our time. Still more exciting is the idea that Bronfman, who has already recorded the full series of Beethoven's piano concertos, had chosen to perform not just one of them, but two. Specifically, the very earliest and the very last, which proved a fascinating experience, especially in his illuminating performances.
Concerto No. 2 was actually the first of Beethoven's official concertos, in order of composition (though published second), with a gestation period of 13 years (1788-1801). It is all too easy to view this work as just part of an unfolding of Beethoven's progress, with this starter concerto having meaning only in relation to what came after it. But there is more sense in viewing it as a work that looks backward, not forward, as an echo of the concerto idiom of Mozart, who was still alive when Beethoven began working on the piece. That seems to be Bronfman's perspective on it, and he realized it with the greatest sensitivity.
There is, in his approach a delicate precision, a rather Mozartean character. Not of the old china-doll stereotype of Mozart, but infused with a buoyancy and elegance that did not yet have room for Beethoven's stormings. Still, there is room for sentiment in the middle movement, in which Bronfman reduces his playing by the end to the level of a whisper, which is simply gripping. Conductor John DeMain and his orchestra follow the soloist's example in avoiding a "big orchestra" sound.
Under the circumstances, it might be expected that Bronfman would then set up a deliberate contrast by raising the roof with Concerto No. 5 (1811), which shows Beethoven's full maturity and mastery. To be sure, there is no lack of powerful playing in his treatment of this score, known to many as the "Emperor." Nevertheless, he seems to be searching for contrast within this work. Some solo passages -- even accompanied ones in the poetic slow movement -- struck me as almost exaggerated in their scaled-down tone and subtlety. Still, it is a most absorbing experiment in qualifying the usual barnstorming approach that most pianists take to the "Emperor." And, by giving us the two concertos in the same program, Bronfman shows that they fit into the overall and consistent evolution of Beethoven's stylistic personality.
In both performances, I found so much to admire in the fluent fleetness of Bronfman's technique. But at many points I was greatly impressed by the way he would give strong definition to bass lines in balance with the right-hand parts, which most pianists stress.
Just to make sure we recognize his capacity for traditional bravura playing, on Friday evening he gave an encore: not the whole Concerto No. 3, but an unidentified piece, perhaps by Schumann, played with real flair.
Truly a thinking person's artist, not just a mindless showman, is this Bronfman.
The orchestra prefaces each concerto with a contribution of its own. To begin with, it is no less than Beethoven's First Symphony (1801). DeMain does not lose opportunities to present some full-sized orchestral sound, but not in a simplistic "big band" manner. Rather, with some Romantic nuancing, there is an appropriately Haydnesque discretion. In other words, he took a excellently balanced 21st-century approach to an early 19th-century gem.
The orchestra also performed another gem from this same early period of the composer's output, the Overture to Beethoven's only full ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus (1801). A smaller gem, but no less sparkling, in the bouncy rendition DeMain conducts.
This is a wonderfully satisfying program, with Bronfman as a guest soloist of great distinction.