During the late 19th century, Wagner and Brahms were considered philosophical opposites in their approach to musical creativity. Musicians, critics and scholars formed enemy camps devoted to the promotion of one composer while denigrating the other, but the passage of time and historical perspective have brought a more balanced assessment of these two musical giants. On Friday night they shared the New World Symphony's program.
The Ring of the Nibelung was Wagner's most ambitious project. For concert performance, the composer adapted Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, the introduction to the prologue and orchestral interlude from Die Götterdämerung, the final of the four-opera cycle. Christian Reif, the orchestra's new conducting fellow, made his debut with this substantial opener at New World Center.
With a relatively spare baton technique, Reif molded the long musical paragraphs, his spacious phrasing allowing Wagner's themes to organically take flight. He smoothly coordinated changes of meter and captured the pulse of Siegfried's ride down the Rhine. The warm sonority of Ran Kampel's clarinet solos and the burnished tone of the four horns highlighted strong brass and wind contributions. Reif is clearly a gifted young conductor, drawing a voluminous sonority that was never raucous.
Despite Brahms' reputation as the high priest of Austro-Germanic musical traditions, he pushed the boundaries of musical form and instrumental subtleties. His two piano concertos are longer and more complex than even Beethoven's Emperor. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major is a monumental work in four rather than the traditional three movements and the taxing solo writing demands nothing less than a pianist with a technique of steel strength and stamina. Yefim Bronfman possesses all that and excels in epic scale works that stretch the soloist's artistic and technical arsenal to the limit.
With New World's artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium, the orchestra was seated in late 19th-century fashion with violins divided and seven double basses on the left. This arrangement brings greater clarity to instrumental textures with the underpinning of the lower string lines strikingly present.
The performance took most of the first movement to settle in. Kevin Haseltine's opening horn solo, taken at a measured pace, was strongly articulated. The lengthy orchestral tutti was more notable for power and drive than subtlety, the musicians' hair-trigger response to Tilson Thomas' often very fast tempos spot on. Bronfman breezed through the rapid triplets, keyboard spanning octaves and fast hand crossings, his playing stronger on grandeur than lyricism.
The soloist brought a lighter touch to the scherzo, infusing the dancelike figurations with a rhythmic acuity that underplayed the music's dark side. In the Andante, Rosanna Butterfield phrased the opening cello solo warmly with rounded tone. Bronfman here gave the melodies space, capturing Brahms' romantic sensibility. In the final reprise of the soaring principal theme, piano, cello and winds were perfectly balanced.
Bronfman combined bravura firepower and Classical elegance in the finale, the Hungarian episodes given due weight but bereft of heaviness. The tonal sonority of the string section was exceptional and the entire orchestra was in top form.
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