Dallas — Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor was the composer’s first large-scale, full-orchestra work. He spent years revising it into various forms—he first conceived of it as a two-piano sonata, then a symphony. (As it turned out, Brahms would not premiere his first symphony for another 18 years, after reworking that material for a total of 22 years, only to have it christened “Beethoven’s Tenth.”)
Eventually, the material morphed into the piano concerto that we now know. The first two performances of the concerto, with Brahms himself as soloist, were a disaster— what clapping there was at the second performance was soon drowned out by hissing. Brahms wrote to his friend, the great violinist Josef Joachim, “I am just experimenting and feeling my way…all the same, the hissing was rather too much.”
Brahms would have been heartened, then, by the reception of his concerto Thursday evening. Far from hissing, the near-capacity crowd on Thursday gave pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra the now apparently obligatory standing ovation at the conclusion of their performance.
This was far from a flawless rendition, however. Uncharacteristically for the DSO of late, however, there were ensemble issues from the first movement until the last chord of the third movement Rondo, in which the orchestra was simply not with the piano. Horn entrances in the first movement lacked crispness. Tempi were often a bit sluggish.
Bronfman’s interpretation of the concerto, however, left me wishing I could hear him perform it again—was it delicate and subtle, or simply unenthusiastic? In either event, Bronfman seems to be radically departing from the fiery approaches favored by many soloists. This departure was particularly notable at the beginning of the third movement Rondo. He virtually ignored the accents Brahms has included in the opening, accents that many soloists strongly emphasize. The orchestra ably copied this unusual choice in their echo of the piano’s eight-bar opening theme.
The second half of the program consisted of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben. It was an out-and-out Straussian romp. Eight horns! A delicious violin solo by DSO Concertmaster Alexander Kerr! Offstage trumpets for an extra dose of drama! Terrific solos by hornist David Cooper and bassoonist Wilfred Roberts! Ein Heldenleben may be a tribute to the hero, but it is also a tribute to the glories of late-Romantic excess. The DSO and Kerr did a fine job of playing it to the hilt. Strauss’ part-writing in this piece often strains the capabilities of even the finest players, but the DSO’s musicians were consistently impressive.
If you want to learn more, watch Alexander Kerr’s explanation of his approach to Ein Heldenleben’s extended concertmaster solo here.