Tugan Sokhiev and Yefim Bronfman perform Beethoven

12 May 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Tugan Sokhiev

Yefim Bronfman

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 Symphonie classique (16 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in C minor, op. 37 (40 min.)

    Yefim Bronfman piano

  • Robert Schumann
    Arabesque in C major, op. 18 (7 min.)

    Yefim Bronfman piano

  • Modest Mussorgsky
    Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel) (41 min.)

  • free

    Tugan Sokhiev in conversation with Amihai Grosz (13 min.)

There can hardly be a better word to describe Yefim Bronfman’s piano playing than ʻsublimeʼ. When the American piano virtuoso with Russian-Jewish roots takes to his instrument, he sits there, still as a statue: Bronfman celebrates his art with stoic calm, and yet sets off a veritable storm of feeling with great emotional intensity. With regard to his controlled body language, the master pianist fondly remembers his colleague Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: “He did not move one muscle too many. But if he once raised his eyebrows, that meant a lot. The music must show emotions, not me. I get paid to be a pianist, not a dancer or an actor.”

For his guest appearance in the Philharmonie, the pianist, together with the Berliner Philharmoniker and under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev, turns his customary imposing technique to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor, a key of particular significance to the composer. “This present concerto,” as the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote on 10 April 1805, “is one of the most important works by this genial master that have been published in recent years, and, in certain aspects, might even excel above all others. ... with respect to its effect on the mind and with respect to its impact, this concerto is one of the most excellent among all that have ever been written ....” A year earlier, in the edition of 15 August 1804, the same publication wrote: “This concerto incontestably belongs among Beethoven’s most beautiful compositions.”

After the interval, Tugan Sokhiev, music director of the Bolshoi Theatre and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, has programmed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The piano cycle, written in memory of the painter Viktor Hartmann, takes the listener on a musical tour through an imaginary gallery, with the selected Hartmann exhibits portrayed with tone-painting effects and outward, immediately illuminating analogies between the artwork and the musical realisation. The most famous orchestral version of the cycle was written in 1922 at the suggestion of the conductor Sergei Koussevitzky and comes from none other than Maurice Ravel: as illuminated in the original black and white drawings of the piano and, as it were, coloured with the pallet of Impressionist sound refinements, it remains one of the most brilliant achievements of instrumentation history.


Restless Spirits in Turbulent Times

Prokofiev, Beethoven and Mussorgsky could have used an occasional breather

They were commonly regarded as great music revolutionaries, but the three occasionally also behaved like counter-revolutionaries. Sergei Prokofiev was particularly adept at shifting into reverse – not to make the Moscow avenues more hazardous with the Ford that he brought along in 1936 in his foolhardy return to the Soviet Union; no: at the steering wheel he was mercilessly progressive. But compositionally he occasionally took some quite peculiar and surprising turns.

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 »Symphonie classique«

One can draw an analogy between his extreme vacillation between forward and backward and the social upheaval that gripped Russia from 1905 onwards. The situation was not only marked by widespread poverty; it had brought about an emancipation of the peasants as well as a resurgence of industrialization and science. Then came the Revolution, which Prokofiev both welcomed and feared, and the ambivalence strongly influenced his work in those years. At the time of the February Revolution he was living in Petrograd. “During the uprising itself, I was in the streets,” the composer reported, “and, from time to time, hid behind projections from walls when the shooting became too fierce. The 19th Vision fugitive, which was written at this time, partly conveys my impressions – more a reflection of the crowd’s excitement than of the Revolution’s essence.” At the same time, Prokofiev was still constantly creating works of lyrical internalization and nostalgic retrospection. This form of recreation and distance was indispensable, vital. Thus in the summer of 1917 he completed the “Classical Symphony”.

The title is not entirely accurate, because what Prokofiev offers the listener cannot unequivocally be connected with the Classical era. His symphony goes further back, even beyond Joseph Haydn, who served as his model. A gavotte – Prokofiev’s third movement – is to be found nowhere in the 104 symphonies of Haydn. This dance form clearly belongs to the Baroque, as does the Air comprising the symphony’s slow movement. And the melody quoted from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden in the finale scarcely evokes the era of Viennese Classicism.

To call the Classical Symphony a specimen of musical satire, as Leonard Bernstein did, falls short of the mark, a retreat to the one-way street of preconception. Its composer is neither lighter nor simpler than, for example, Dmitri Shostakovich. And if his music sometimes sounds light-hearted and harmless, it is only attempting to banish the terrors out of which it arose.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Nor was Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto created in a vacuum. As overstated as the mystification of this composer, already incipient during his lifetime, may seem, no less understated is today’s limitation of discussion to purely aesthetic factors. We have a great deal of biographical information about his early years in Vienna, but little about the background leading to the composition of this concerto. It is surely not irrelevant that in 1802, while he was carrying out his principal work on the Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven also began composing the Eroica; or that it is his only concerto in the minor, and in the same key as the Fifth Symphony; or that the work appeared in print in 1804 with a dedication to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a gifted pianist and composer who, two years later, would fall at Saalfeld leading his troops in battle against the French – a few days before Prussia’s even more decisive defeat in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Bonaparte had, of course, already cemented his grip on central Europe militarily, as Beethoven was fully aware.

The spirit of the age is deeply engrained in Beethoven’s works, including the C minor Piano Concerto, which had its premiere in 1803. This spirit, however, is concealed under a wealth of compositional stratagems, which are not immediately obvious. Even early on, Mozart’s powerful influence was widely noted, especially the Piano Concertos in D minor and C minor, which Beethoven famously loved. The tragic element in Mozart here takes on heroic features, and the heroic, in turn, not infrequently yields to idyllic scenes, for example when the sombre opening is followed by an almost easy-going, bucolic second theme. The slow movement, a Largo in the key of E major, disconcertingly remote from the opening movement’s C minor, turns into a romantic confession, an evocation of time-defying subjectivity. The finale, formally a rondo, does not exactly offer the upbeat ending expected by audiences of that time, instead recommencing the opening movement’s combativeness in a thoroughly humorous, though occasionally aggressive, fashion. It is also in C minor. The turn to C major does not arrive until the piano’s brief cadenza.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestral version by Maurice Ravel)

General Alexander Rimsky-Korsakov, a forebear of the famous composer, was involved in Bonaparte’s triumph in 1801 that ended the War of the Second Coalition. The Russian troops were led at the time by Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, who had previously served in one of the two elite life-guard regiments of the imperial army. In 1856, a 17-year-old cadet also entered one of those old regiments. Elegantly clad, speaking flawless German and French, cosmopolitan in his thinking, astonishingly adept on the piano, his name was Modest Mussorgsky. Fortunately, he quickly abandoned the idea of a military career.

The piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition, composed within a few weeks in 1874, displays the relaxed and witty side of Mussorgsky’s personality. It consists of tone pictures based on paintings by the composer’s late friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died at the age of 39. Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition of 400 pictures and selected ten of them, thematically joining them with short, thoughtful promenades that lead from one picture to the next. There are no explicitly Russian motifs“The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” deals with a pan-Slavic myth and “The Great Gate of Kiev”, strictly speaking, is located in the Ukraine. Even more striking are the titles chosen by Mussorgsky, using five foreign languages: French (“Promenade”, “Tuileries”, “Limoges”), Latin (“Gnomus”, “Catacombae”), Italian (“Il vecchio castello”), Polish (“Bydło”) and Yiddish (“Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle”). Only the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”, “Great Gate of Kiev” and “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” are headed in Cyrillic in the first edition of 1886.

When he created the piano cycle, Mussorgsky had long since distanced himself from the Western tastes of his younger years and now accepted only Franz Liszt. As a result, he was long reproached for amateurish piano writing. Only gradually came the recognition of how much he had anticipated the innovations of Debussy and Bartók. Ravel’s 1922 orchestration contributed substantially to the acceptance, indeed popularity, of Pictures at an Exhibition. We may confidently call the orchestral version ideally matched to the original – neither better nor worse.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

Tugan Sokhiev hails from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and studied with Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatory, while also attending the conducting classes of Yuri Temirkanov. In 2000 he won the main prize in the Third International Prokofiev Competition, an award that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the North Ossetia State Philharmonic. He attracted international attention in 2002 conducting Puccini’s La Bohème at the Welsh National Opera. Already the following year he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and in 2004 at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges. Sokhiev has been music director of the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse since the autumn of 2008. In addition, he took on the position of music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin from 2012 until the summer 2016. Furthermore, he was appointed Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre and Orchestra in January 2014. In addition he regularly conducts at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. As a much sought-after guest conductor all over the world he has worked with the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Tugan Sokhiev, who was named “Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite” in France, made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010; he last appeared with the orchestra in October 2016 conducting works by Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Franck.

Yefim Bronfman, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1958, emigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 15 and became an American citizen in 1989. His teachers included Arie Vardi in Israel and Rudolf Firkušný, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin in the USA. Yefim Bronfman launched his international career in Montreal under Zubin Mehta in 1975; his first concerts with the New York Philharmonic followed three years later. Since then Yefim Bronfman has appeared with the leading international orchestras, collaborating with many distinguished conductors. Recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1991, he performs with such chamber music partners as Lynn Harrell, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Pinchas Zukerman and the Emerson, Cleveland, Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets. In May 2012 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic, in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Alan Gilbert. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 Yefim Bronfman has appeared frequently at the Philharmonie as a concert soloist, chamber musician and in solo programmes, serving as the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence during the 2004/2005 season. In his last performances with the orchestra in December 2014, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, he gave the premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch.

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