Once one finds out the under-communicated fact that Yefim Bronfman is one of the two 2012/13 Artists-in-Residence with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (the other one is, considerably more titillating, Christian Gerhaher), it becomes understandable that he doesn’t seem to leave town anymore at all, with appearances in June (alongside terrific Salonen), July (granted with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Munich suburb of Salzburg), and earlier this month, in a Kid’s concert of all things. Presumably he’s cheaper by the half dozen—pay for four concerts, get six—and a pleasant enough pianist to hear as many times in a season: On this occasion pleasant to hear in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 (a.k.a. Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra), which he and Mariss Jansons, in his first appearance with the BRSO this season, dashed off with verve, expertise, and routine.
That Bronfman is likely the right man for the job he proved with his 1998 recording of the two concertos (with Salonen), which remains most competitive in a field that gets more crowded every year. Because the hot little concluding number of an Allegro con brio worked so well with the audience, Bronfman and his trumpet partner Hannes Läubin opted to play the Bernstein doggy-style Rondo for Lifey that they had prepared for the occasion.
Preceding Shostakovich was a work of a friend of Shostakovich’s and Jansons’, the composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Self-Portrait – Variations for Symphony Orchestra. Self-Portrait was written in 1984, at the very height of the cold war–even if hindsight affords a perspective now that allows us to detect the first thawing of that conflict... with the CPSU General Secretaries almost literally in decay and Gorbachev about to assume power. But that can't have been the view from within the USSR, at the time, with the LA Olympics just being boycotted.
During that time Shchedrin wrote a work that is, despite the program notes’ suggestions, not of audible optimism. It is, however increasingly agitated and heart-on-sleeve, brutal at times, laced with longs stretches of great lyricism, filled with music from his ballets (all written for his wife Maya Plisetskaya, one of the great 20th century ballerinas), and an ever recurring musical cell at its core, Shchedrin’s musical signature “E-flat-B-C-B-E-D” (= S-H-C-H-E-D). It’s an arresting work, and would have been more compelling still, if it hadn’t been for the coughcophony [sic] of the elderly disinterested, into all the delicate quiet parts of course, as per Murphy's concert-etiquette law.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony was last performed by the BRSO in December of 2008 (it seems much more recent than the date suggests), and then, too, accompanied by a work of Shchedrin’s: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament – Symphonic Fragment for Orchestra, which the BRSO premiered that night as part of a series of new commission to go along with a Beethoven Symphony Cycle.
Much of the description of the Eroica from then was true now: “Tight and energetic without exaggeration, attacking notes early, choosing brisk (but not outright fast) tempos, Jansons achieved a full, but not romantically sated sound.” Except that on this occasion the opening was rater inauspicious: not fast but rushed, inexact (which is unusual for the BRSO), and with a host of individual mistakes from the brass section. If BR Klassik had planned to record the concert for CD release, they couldn’t have been very pleased. But matters improved considerably with the second movement, while retaining a fly-by-the-seats-of-their-pants quality that is rare with the micromanaging Jansons who is more likely to err, if he errs at all, on the pedantic, rather than spontaneous side. Punchy and brooding, with sharp dynamic contrasts, and nervously tense strings, the performance became enthralling for three movements, with a particularly highlight in form of the question & answer game that the first violins play at the end of the second movement when their elliptical musical sentences are being answered elsewhere in the orchestra. Ditto the finale, which was puffed up like angry bird gone astray.
Good thing the BRSO is a radio orchestra, meanwhile: a select few players were so sloppily dressed, with short socks, even shorter trousers, and pale hairy legs peeking out or shoddily tied, crumpled old cumberbunds with the straps showing, that their visual impression would have jarred mightily with the aural quality.