Brilliant tickling of the ivories



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Shui Lan (conductor), Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Thursday

This gala concert was destined to be something out of the ordinary, with Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman playing two concertos, only sitting out the nine-minute overture.

If there were any questions as to how the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven and Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2 could fit in one programme, Bronfman answered them unequivocally, with superb performances of both.

It would have been easy for Shui Lan to treat Rossini's Overture To The Thieving Magpie as just a filler before the two main events, but his focus and intensity on the well-loved overture were clear.

From the opening drum rolls and throughout the work, he sustained a very high level of performance, with pristine string playing and delightful wind solos.

Bronfman cut an imposing figure on stage. He made the conductor and all the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) principals look petite in comparison, and the first impression was that his Beethoven concerto would be a bombastic affair.

Appearances can deceive, though. The sensitivity and touch with which he played the hushed opening chords of the Beethoven concerto were spellbinding.

The concerto is the least showy of Beethoven's five piano concertos, a piece that demands the highest level of musicianship.

Bronfman, who last performed a powerfully dramatic Brahms' second piano concerto with the SSO in 2014, showed new dimensions of elegance and beauty in the Beethoven, with a peerless ability to carry the musical line.

His playing in the serene second movement was sublime - quiet and introspective, but simmering with emotion. The third movement rondo was simply icing on the cake, a delightful closing for a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying concerto.

Shui and the SSO revelled in their accompaniment. They had in Bronfman a soloist who was totally dedicated to musical partnership and they responded by delivering some of the best Beethoven this reviewer has heard from them - stylish, precise and spirited.

Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2, while less brutal than the composer's first piano concerto, is still an avant-garde work, unmistakably modern and the antithesis to the affable Beethoven concerto.

Bronfman could well have chosen to wow the audience over with his technical ability and bravura - there seemed to be nothing in the solo piano part that was too challenging to him. Instead, it was his immense musicianship that shone through, bringing charm and beauty that is not often heard in a Bartok concerto.

The furious piano runs were delivered with a hint of levity and there was playful banter between soloist, brass and timpani in the first movement.

The piano and timpani continued their partnership in the second movement, this time in the form of extended duets, where Christian Schioler made his timpanis sound as tuneful as the piano.

In the highly syncopated final movement, Bartok's percussive style of piano writing returned, this time with even greater energy, building up to an explosive close.

Bartok's orchestral score for the concerto is every bit as difficult as the solo part and Shui directed with distinction. There were occasions when orchestral ensemble was less than perfect, but the overall performance was excellent.

It was hard to expect any encore after more than 65 minutes of highly demanding concerto playing, but Bronfman gamely obliged the audience with two.

His performances of the Schumann Arabesque In C Major and Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No. 3 simply reinforced what an extraordinary musician he is.

His musical sensitivity, impeccable timing and ability to captivate the listener are very special indeed.

Correction note: This story was edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline 'Brilliant tinkling of the ivories'. Print Edition | Subscribe