A spectacular all-Brahms concert in Rome with pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Daniele Gatti offered the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 2 at the Sala Santa Cecilia on May 5. Arriving by bus in a torrential rainstorm, it nevertheless was exciting to see the Auditorium at the famed Parco della Musica, a huge modern building that contains several concert venues north of the city center.
Of interest to this retired orchestra player was the concert etiquette of the orchestra. Unlike symphony orchestras in the United States, here the players do not enter the stage early to tune and warm up. There is no pre-concert noodling in front of the entering public as in the USA. At four minutes after the announced concert time the players file on stage to continuous applause. They take their seats and the concertmaster begins the formal tuning process.
Yefim Bronfman has the distinction to be the pianist who performed the most concerts in 2018, as reported by bachtrack.com. His concerts around the world attract large audiences, and is was clear this night why that is. His playing of this grand work was powerful, yet effortless. His sound is never harsh, but rather clear and clean.
The horn solo that opens the concerto was smooth with centered pitch. It takes nerves of steel for the player to remain calm and this performance was confident, putting the audience at ease from the get go. Especially notable in this movement was the fluid and flexible rubato between the cello and piano. The assembled musicians seemed to breath together, not as many players, but as a single unit. It was only in this movement that the balance favored the winds to the detriment of the string sound.
The second movement is Allegro appassionato, full of rhythmic vitality. Before the concerto was premiered in 1881, Brahms humorously commented to a friend “…I have written a tiny little piano concerto with a little wisp of a scherzo. It is in B-flat…” The tiny concerto is a 45-minute work. The solo cello opens the third movement Andante, here lovingly played by principal cellist Luigi Piovano. Brahms later used this melody in a song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (My slumber decreases). The interplay between the solo cello and piano was delightful, with the piano weaving lines around the unfolding melody. The fourth movement rondo was dramatic and rhythmically compelling. And the audience got it. The soloist was called back three times for bows, and he called the principal cellist to the front of the stage for a solo bow.
Conductor Daniele Gatti showed extraordinary skill in driving the forces with a minimum of movement. As principal conductor of this orchestra from 1992 to 1997, it was clear that he has a rapport with this responsive ensemble. He is currently Musical Director of the Rome Opera and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He has conducted major orchestras worldwide and was principal conductor of the Concertgebouw from 2014 to 2018.
It was in the Second Symphony of Brahms that Gatti showed his skill of communication with the players. The was no extraneous movement on the podium. This man does not beat time, hut rather shapes phrases, occasionally leaning into the orchestra. The opening movement began with a hushed statement in the cellos, answered by the wind choir. This dialogue between winds and strings was effective, with clearly defined phrases. It seemed remarkable that in this cavernous concert hall everything could be heard so clearly. As the tension builds, the music becomes less lyrical and very fragmented, with typical Brahms syncopation and cross rhythms. The orchestra rolled ahead with every note falling into place. It was a joy not only to hear, but also to watch, as the conductor seemed to stay out of the way of the players, always a good sign.
As the songful second movement Adagio concluded, there was hardly a breath of space as the music gracefully glides into the third movement, as if the momentum continued through the short pause between movements. The final movement began as hushed as the first did, this time with scurrying notes in the strings, again the combined forces moving as one. As quietly as it began, the return of the exposition seemed even softer, as if ready to build to the climatic coda and end. Brahms brings the trombone section on stage for this symphony, adding power and body to the sound. As in the concerto, the audience was obviously thrilled at Gatti’s efforts, calling the conductor back for several bows. It was worth the effort through the rainstorm to find this exciting event.