Works by two composers – Tchaikovsky and Brahms – who didn’t especially like each other’s music, were nevertheless performed together by the LA Phil this past weekend.
The young Slovakian conductor, Juraj Valcuha, conducted the Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, “Winter Dreams,” by Tchaikovsky and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 83 by Brahms with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist.
It was practically a full house at Saturday night’s (April 23) concert, which opened with a restrained version of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, composed when he was only 26 years old. The symphony is scored very traditionally except for three trombones, tuba, bass drum, and cymbal. However Tchaikovsky saves these louder, more brash instruments for the last movement (Allegro maestoso). Even though this symphony was one of Tchaikovsky’s earliest works, one can already hear hints of the Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 and ballets that were to follow, especially in the lush writing for strings and familiar melodies for which Tchaikovsky is famous.
Still young himself, Valcuha’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s youthful symphony was slow in places, especially the second movement and the middle part of the third movement (Scherzo). That’s not to say that it wasn’t a very tight, enjoyable performance. And, even though the LA Phil was playing without several of its principals (most notably, Martin Chalifour, Carrie Dennis, Ariana Ghez), one couldn’t tell; they still produced a very warm sound.
After intermission, Bronfman joined Valcuha in a masterful rendition of the Brahms. Here Valcuha held the orchestra back when it would have been easy to allow it to overshadow Bronfman’s extraordinary playing. Bronfman – perhaps the reason why the hall was packed – performed the technically and musically difficult and demanding Brahms effortlessly. His arms seemed to move only to reposition his hands, which did all the work. One could even imagine the stocky Bronfman as Brahms, which lent the performance even more credibility as if it needed it. It was a mesmerizing performance by Bronfman and the LA Phil with wonderful playing by principal cellist Peter Stumpf, the two principal clarinetists (Michele Zukovsky and Lorin Levee), and the entire horn section.
Even if Tchaikovsky and Brahms didn’t fully appreciate each other’s music, it would have been hard for them not to have appreciated the concert on Saturday night.