You can keep your Rach 3: in my books, the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto is the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s relentless, merciless, bone-grinding, with a sadistic, 10-minute long cadenza at the end of the first movement and a video-game speed scherzo in which the soloist literally never pauses for breath. Wednesday evening at NACO, Yefim Bronfman made it all seem effortless.
Comrade, do you even Prokofiev 2?
Bronfman is an anomaly, a beast, a demigod. The kind of pianist who makes other pianists weep with despair and shake their heads in bewildered admiration. Yes, he played the Prokofiev with superhuman speed and power, but also clarity, articulation, wit, voluptuous colour and line. He muscled the piece into submission, but with a style that was more Sumo wrestler than bouncer: finesse and strategy as well as brawn.
I always love watching the contrast between Bronfman’s broad, motionless back and the lethal blur of his hands. More excitable young pianists would do well to follow his zen example.
The young Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha is guesting this week. European critics have been raving about him, and I’ve heard the NACO musicians are fans. they must be seeing something different: from the hall I found his body language strangely off-putting: square, stiff, and erratic. But you can’t argue with the results he gets: Glazunov’s Concert Waltz was warmly lyrical, sweet but not syrupy.
In the Prokofiev he kept a taut connection to Bronfman’s blazing speed; especially through the clattering machinery of the second movement. But I found Valčuha’s exaggerated, frantic movements visually distracting; he isn’t the most discreet partner.
After the Prokofiev’s final kaboom, Bronfman dialed down the adrenaline with a reading of Schumann’s Arabeske that was a miracle of delicacy, reverent tone and refined sentiment.
Physical tics aside, Valčuha produced an emotionally dignified Brahms Symphony No. 2 that did not lack for verve or exaltation. The easygoing pace of the opening Allegro still had forward movement thanks to lush phrasing and generous breath . I like this conductor’s judicious tempi, subtle dynamics and artfully calibrated climaxes—the stately Adagio and gently lilting, almost playful Allegretto were both just so. Only the finale was a little quick and light; the exuberant, “peasant” quality of the music was overly polished.
The orchestra sounded wonderful, with mannerly woodwinds, vibrantly expressive strings and stentorian brass. Principal horn Larry Vine enjoyed a particularly good night.