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Bronfman and CSO forge a powerhouse partnership with Beethoven

Yefim Bronfman was soloist as Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 4" at Symphony Center. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

To start, I will leave it to the great novelist Philip Roth to describe Yefim Bronfman, who played Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major” Thursday evening as Maestro Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although in his book “The Human Stain” Roth describes the pianist playing a work by Prokofiev, the overall impression of the musician needs little editing.

As Roth writes: “Then Bronfman appears. Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo! Enter Bronfman to play at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso . . . somebody who has strolled into the music shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.”

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRARecommended

When: Feb. 18 at 8 p.m.

220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $50 – $265

Info: (312) 294-3000;

http://www.cso.org

Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

with one intermission

Listening to Bronfman play Beethoven’s familiar concerto is like being in a crowded room when suddenly a profound conversationalist begins to speak and everyone just steps back to listen with rapt attention. The pianist is, indeed, a bear of a man, and when that heft is called for in this piece, he is there to deliver it. He can roar, but he also can whisper. He can conjure a multitude of dynamics, shifting quickly from one extreme to another – making little fuss with the simple opening chords of that first movement, and later grabbing hold of great solo interludes with such force that by the end of the first movement even the CSO’s sophisticated audience broke an unspoken taboo and erupted into spontaneous applause.

Of course, the CSO and Muti can do much same thing, shifting from the concerto’s lightest, most fluid, rippling passages, to its slower, more considered sequences, to the fury of the strings (altogether ravishing) in the second movement. And there are moments when the overall structure of the piece, and its seamless melding of moods, just makes you sit up and revel anew at the genius of Beethoven.

For the program’s opener, Muti chose something of an “amuse bouche” – the Overture to Rossini’s opera “Semiramide.” Although the opera itself is a tragedy, the shifts from a delicate, skittering energy to full-out storminess, from the sweetness of one theme to the mellow sound of a full complement of French horns, is easily engaging. And Rossini clearly is mother’s milk to Muti.

The second half of the program was devoted to Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 5 in D Major (Reformation),” and true to its title, it heralds the establishment of the Lutheran faith, to the point where at one moment you can almost hear Martin Luther nailing to a door the paper containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.

The irony in all this is that Mendelssohn was from a prominent German-Jewish family that, feeling the impact of European anti-Semitism, made the decision to convert to Lutheranism. His symphony, superbly played here, unquestionably summons up the notion of an emergent and then fully triumphant movement, with the liturgical weight leavened by passages with an almost dancing, lyrical sweetness. Yet I can’t say I was swept away by this work. I would much prefer to hear this composer’s “Violin Concerto,” “String Octet” or music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ”

Maestro Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Rossini, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)
Maestro Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Rossini, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)