London Symphony Orchestra, Bronfman, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

Posted on May 13th, 2011

As sometimes happens in live performances a soloist’s encore might display a brilliance and precision that one might have felt lacking in the main event – or, in this case, events. Yefim Bronfman’s account of the Paganini-Liszt Étude No.2 in E-flat major was dazzling and alert and focused in ways that his back-to-back performances of the two Shostakovich Piano Concertos were not. It’s easy to impress, to swagger one’s way through this popular showpiece – far less easy to pitch the dynamic contrasts in such a way as to have those quicksilver cascades in the right hand make one smile with astonishment each time they return.

The problem with Bronfman’s – and even Gergiev’s – Shostakovich was the degree of sluggishness in rhythm and co-ordination: a few too many skids and awkward corners to be entirely comfortable. The slapstick world of the First Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings felt a little too casual and dead-pan from Bronfman’s point of view, his throw-away style in acute contrast to the young LSO principal Philip Cobb’s brilliant articulation of the madcap trumpet part. We all know that Bronfman can pull out the big guns and his Tom and Jerry moments in the finale raised a guffaw or two and one mighty pratfall.

Best, though, were the muted strains of the slow movement with beautiful LSO string washes and touches of bitter-sweet nostalgia from Cobb’s aching solo. We missed him in the Second Concerto where the composer’s thunderous rhetoric was not always at one with rhythmic precision and where the presence of a page-turner bobbing up and down was a constant source of distraction when one would expect an artist of Bronfman’s calibre to be well and truly “off the book” by now.

No reservations at all about Gergiev and the orchestra’s wonderfully accomplished account of Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony (“Polish”). The intricate classicism of this piece, its deftness and sleight of hand, make it extraordinarily difficult to pull off – but Gergiev instinctively knows how this music breathes, he knows how to catch it on the wing, so to speak, to take the sound away and achieve that airiness and balletic poise that can be so elusive. The woodwind playing throughout was a complete joy with Fredrik Ekdahl’s solo bassoon gorgeously unlocking the melancholy of the central Andante, one of Tchaikovsky’s most affecting creations permeated here with a super-atmospheric air of regret.

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