Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Yefim Bronfman Returns to Vancouver

There is a well-known YouTube video of a very young Yefim Bronfman playing in a masterclass for pianist Gina Bachauer. At the end of Bronfman’s performance, Bachauer was ask what she wanted to say to the young performer, upon which she replied, “I have nothing to say. God Bless you.” This brief video probably shows both what kind of a person Bachauer was, as well as the enormity of Bronfman’s talents. 


I first heard Bronfman many years ago when he substituted for an indisposed Gary Graffman. Bronfman came on stage and simply stunned the audience with his performance of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. I immediately bought a ticket for the subsequent performance, and I have never yet missed any performance every time Bronfman visits Vancouver.


It has been many years since Bronfman had given a solo recital in Vancouver, and last night, he once again reminds us why he is one of today’s most outstanding musicians and artists. Bronfman has an absolute command of every facet of playing the piano, and there is nothing technically that is beyond him. At the same time, even in the relatively large space of Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, he was able to draw the audience in with the intimacy of his playing. Hearing him last night, I was reminded of Arthur Rubinstein, in the absolutely natural way he presents the music, without histrionics, and with simplicity and sincerity.


The opening work, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784, was a case in point. Bronfman presented the beauty and emotional core of the work, simply and without affectation but with great beauty and depth of feeling. The Andante sang out in the most songful manner, and the Allegro vivace suitably ferocious. 


In Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, Bronfman brought out the absolute exuberance of the music, as well as its kaleidoscopic gamut of emotions, and carried us along in his very personal journey through the five movements of the work. 


Conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote Sisar for Mr. Bronfman, and the pianist gave a performance of absolute conviction, from the capricious, dream-like opening to the more energetic and playful later sections. 


Bronfman’s performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, again reminded me of Mr. Rubinstein, playing of great beauty, with sentiment and yet not sentimental, and projecting the bel canto melody right to the last row of the auditorium.


I had heard Bronfman perform Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, years ago in one of his previous visits to Vancouver, and I knew we would be in for a treat. It was much more than Bronfman’s absolute command and technical control of this complex, transcendentally-difficult  score, but it is the way he drew this infinite variety of sound colours from the beautiful Steinway piano. In the second movement, Bronfman’s playing seemed to exude a kind of hypnotic effect with the music. And he really threw caution to the wind with the frenzy of the 3rd movement, thrilling us with his truly stunning playing of the toccata-like movement. The sound, or rather the pulse of this music, lingered in my mind long after the evening was over.


After such a performance, of course there were cheers and bravos from the audience, who were impressively attentive during the course of the evening. Bronfman graciously granted two encores – a rippling and songful performance of Schumann’s deceptively simple Arabeske, Op. 18, and a rip-roaring romp through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, bringing out the power and sweep of the opening and closing sections, without taking away the melancholy of the middle section. I was completely swept away by the tremendous power and energy he put into and drew from the music.


Bronfman’s last appearance in Vancouver was with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a towering performance of Brahms’ towering Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. It was a privilege to have heard this towering artist again, and I, for one, am already looking forward to his next visit. 

A Stirring Mahler 3rd in Seattle

It has indeed been a treat this season, to be able to hear performances of not one but two Mahler symphonies – the 5thearlier this season, and now the monumental 3rd. No stranger to Seattle audiences, conductor Kahchun Wong came with an impressive list of accomplishments, and indeed proved to be an extremely talented young conductor. And joining the Seattle orchestra in this memorable performance were mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and the Northwest Boychoir. 


Right from the outset, Wong brought out truly outstanding playing from every section of the orchestra, with the horn solo at the outset establishing the mood of grandeur and a real sense of urgency. Wong maintained the forward impetus throughout the gigantic first movement, with the oft-recurring trumpet calls with its almost primeval sound. There was also a palpable sense of weight in the string playing, especially in the prominent bass parts. 


Wong shaped the opening Tempo de Menuetto movement with the requisite Viennese lilt, preparing the listener for that beautiful chord played by the violins and harps at measure 28. The L’istesso tempo section was played with that typically Mahlerian combination of humour and pathos. This tone of irony continued on in the third movement, with outstanding playing especially by the wind section. 


Julie Boulianne has a beautifully dark quality in her voice so appropriate for the fourth movement. I did, however, feel that there was an emotional detachment and a want of depth of feeling in her singing that evening. I could not help but miss the emotional depth with which Maureen Forrester sang this movement. Wong and the orchestra supported Boulianne’s vocal lines with great sensitivity, and again, I loved the weight and tone, the sense of “substance” in the string playing. 


The fifth movement was just wonderfully done all around, with members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir aptly capturing Mahler child-like vision of heavenly bliss, a theme he explores to even greater effect in the Fourth Symphony. For me, Boulianne’s singing captured the mood of this movement to much greater effect than she did in the fourth movement. 


The crowning glory of the entire symphony, indeed, one of the greatest symphonic endings in Mahler (except for the final movement of the Ninth Symphony), has to be the Langsam movement. I have to again comment on the beautiful string tone of the orchestra as well as Wong’s incredible sense of timing and pacing – what a great feat for such a young conductor. There was a feeling of organic unity in the music, and not merely a series of beautiful episodes. At the end of the performance, there was an almost audible sigh from the entire audience, almost as if all of us were holding our breath throughout the past half hour. 


This performance is an amazing accomplishment for such a young conductor, not just in terms of holding the orchestra together, but in having an organic view of the entire work, from beginning to end, and of pacing the performance the way he did. I believe, with a piece like Mahler’s 3rd, a conductor must be able to see the way clearly before him, but at the same time lose himself within the music, to lose and find himself at the same time. With time, as he is able to lose himself more into, and surrender himself more to the emotional core of the music, I believe the results might just be transcendental. 



Monday, April 8, 2024

A Wonderful Afternoon of Opus One's

There has been a great deal of press covering Yuchan Lim, gold medalist of the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and Mr. Lim had done so much performing since his win that he recently suffered a hand injury and was forced to cancel some performances. Such is the price to pay for today’s successful musicians, when air travel allows one to be in three or four different cities within the same week. The silver medalist of that same competition, Anna Geniushene has, perhaps as a result of the reality of the proliferation of piano competitions today, received far less notice in the music world. And so, it was a less-than-capacity audience that greeted Ms. Geniushene as she walked onto the stage of the Vancouver Playhouse for her debut in the city, which did not stop her for giving a scintillating performance of a generous and varied programme.


The young pianist began her recital with Muzio Clementi’s two-movement Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 1. Ever since Horowitz brought the world’s attention to Clementi, this composer, normally known to piano students as the creator of some charming sonatinas, can now occasionally be heard in piano recitals. Geniushene gave a spacious and rhythmically flexible reading of the first movement, giving much room for the music to breathe, and highlighting the humour within the music. She played the charming second movement with disarming simplicity, giving the feeling of a child romping through a field.


Geniushene gave Chopin’s Rondo, Op. 1 all the charm and vitality the music calls for, bringing alive the dance rhythm in the score, and highlighting the gamut of emotions contained in this short work. Her fantastic pianistic abilities seemingly allowed her to take no heed to the work’s incredible technical demands.


In Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Wiegenlied, Op. 1, Geniushene gave the work an incredible delicacy called for in the music, giving us an infinite palette of colours even within a relatively narrow dynamic range. She also brought out the fantasy-like character found in much of the music, and used her magical pedalling to create a mixture of colours. 


This element of fantasy carried over to her passionate performance of Schumann’s “Abegg” Variations, Op. 1, from the ardour she brought to the opening notes, to the brilliance and panache she played in some of the variations, she successfully wove together the disparate variations to create a beautiful whole. 


The first half of the recital ended with a real rarity, Tchaikovsky’s Two Pieces, Op. 1. From the tumultuous beginning of the first piece, with a lyrical middle section, to the boisterous scherzando-like second piece, she identified completely with this music, giving it a committed and utterly convincing performance.


The recital’s second half began with Alban Berg’s lyrical masterpiece, his Sonata, Op. 1. Again, Geniushene believed in the greatness of this work, giving it an idiomatic and impassioned reading, but without sacrificing the clarity in voice leading within the densely woven texture of the work, and infusing the music with the twilight-tinged colours inherent in the score.


She ended her concert with a truly magisterial performance of Brahms’ youthful Sonata in C Major, Op. 1. In her brief introduction before her performance, Geniushene spoke about how Brahms was very much thinking about Beethoven gigantic Hammerklavier (Op. 106) sonata. And indeed, the opening chords of the 1st movement do remind one of the opening of Beethoven’s magnum opus for the piano. Geniushene has a thorough grasp of the Brahmsian idiom, capturing the composer’s youthful ardour, as well as the depth and “bigness” of the sound called for by the music. Her performance of this work reminds me of Robert Schumann’s description of Brahms as a “young eagle”. In the sonata’s second movement, she played the opening with depth of feeling, beautiful voicing of the chords, as well as a real sense of sombreness and solemnity that almost foreshadow the composer’s late piano pieces. The young artist played the 3rd and 4th movements with great ardour, a huge range of emotions and colours, and a technical command and assurance on the level of a Michelangelo. In the 3rd movement, she really brought out the symphonic scope of the music, so akin to the gigantic orchestral scherzi in his symphonies. There was never a sagging in the music tension, and there was an incredible sense of forward motion, all the way to a triumphal ending that left the Steinway limp and the audience exhilarated. 


After a justly deserved ovation, Geniushene played Beethoven’s Bagatelle in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 1, giving the music all the charm and humour it calls for. 


In a recent conversation with a musician friend who enjoys an active concert career, he commented on how differently careers often turn out between the gold medalist of a major competition and the runner up’s. In today’s competitive music world, with competition winners emerging year after year, the lustre of winning even a major prize no longer has the same impact as it once did. It is too soon to tell if Mrs. Geniushene will enjoy a major career - she certainly has the requisite talent and pianism that a career demands. But in today’s highly commercialized music “business” (oh, what a terrible word to be associated with music!), talent rarely equates success. I do wish Mrs. Geniushene well in her musical journey, and hope that she would be appreciated by many in the music world, an appreciation that, judging from yesterday’s performance, she more than deserves.