Brahms' piano concertos have featured heavily on pianist Yefim Bronfman's touring schedule of late, and he has plans to record both concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra. The Piano Concerto No. 2 played on Friday night at the Esplanade Concert Hall was completed almost a quarter of a century later than the first, a more complex and challenging work for both soloist and orchestra, breaking conventions in several fronts, including having four movements instead of three.
In a post-concert chat session, the Israeli-American pianist talked about how this concerto sometimes felt like chamber music, where he shared the music with a range of solo instruments, starting with the opening horn solo, performed elegantly by Marc-Antoine Robillard, and continuing on to an achingly beautiful extended cello solo played by Ng Pei Sian in the third movement.
The concerto has many parts calling for full-blooded piano playing, and the beefy Bronfman dispatched them effortlessly. The true joy, however, was to hear him blending seamlessly with different parts of the orchestra, adjusting his touch and tone to sound like a woodwind chorale one moment, and a full orchestra the next. It was pity that even his great touch was not able to overcome a slightly steely, brittle tone from the Steinway piano in use.
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra was also in great form. The work is more symphonic than in any concerto written earlier, and was played with excellent orchestral tone. Conductor Lan Shui's empathetic direction made the concerto a resounding success. An ecstatic audience coaxed two encores from Bronfman, and the second - a deceptively simple miniature by Scarlatti - was simply mesmerizing.
The second work for the evening was Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. One of the composer's last works, it is also soon to be recorded, this time by the SSO as the final instalment of their complete Rachmaninov box set on BIS Records.
Over the years Lan and his musicians have developed an affinity for the composer's music, and from the rollicking opening theme through the adventurous harmonies of the second and third movements, the much admired precision and directness of the SSO's Rachmaninov performances were evident. Strong solos were to be heard throughout from the wind principals, piano and cor anglais and principal violin. The bonus for this evening was the greater sense of ease with which lent extra warmth to the music.
The SSO has shone in the string of demanding concerts performed since their return from the Proms, and the quality of music-making has been remarkably consistent, without any hint of post-tour flagging. Coupled with the completion of the Rachmaninov recordings, 2014 may mark a breakthrough year for the orchestra.