Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
When you're going to venture into a land of wide-ranging and rigorous terrain, you want to be with someone who knows the territory. Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, though written when the composer was still in his early 20s and feeling his way through symphonic composition, is an expansive country in which you traverse dense rain forests, placid lakes, vast savannas, rocky coastlines pounded by surf, river valleys, sierras, snowfields, and much more – so much, in fact, that it's easy to get lost in it. But with the estimable Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard, you not only know where you are every step of the way, you can appreciate in full each sweeping landscape and panoramic vista.
Bronfman is like the guide who has traveled so extensively through a region that he knows every inch intimately, as he demonstrated to the crowd's delight during his performance of the concerto with the Austin Symphony last week. In every moment of every movement, every shift in the drama – and oh my, is there ever a wealth of drama packed into this piece – Bronfman displayed a masterful command of the material: famously pummeling the keys in the first movement's stormiest flashes, then lightly dancing his way across them in its jubilant runs and crisply executing its exacting trills; sounding out with deep sensitivity and delicacy the reflective Adagio; and bringing a resolute vigor to the ever-more challenging Rondo that seemed to gather more energy and purpose with each new demand from the score. While the work leaves ample room for bluster and romantic sentimentality, Bronfman never so much as glanced in that direction. His playing was certainly forceful and emotional, but it was measured, carefully calibrated to the music, coming from a place of clear-eyed comprehension rather than reckless passion or artistic self-indulgence.
On the podium, ASO conductor Peter Bay led the orchestra with comparable restraint. He had his ensemble play the intimate traveling companion to Bronfman's piano, sometimes chiding it, sometimes soothing it, raising its voice in dissension or assent, quietly grumbling in the background or offering tender support, always with fullness of feeling but never more or less than expressed by the soloist. Their partnership was held in admirable balance, each playing off of and feeding the other. Together, Bronfman and ASO provided a spirited, exhilarating tour of what seemed like half the globe.
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