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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2011

This concert was filmed back in June 1992 at the Philharmonie in Berlin. The conductor was the venerable Kurt Sanderling, then 80, and still alive at the time of writing, and approaching his centenary in 2012. The soloist was Yefim Bronfman, then a stripling in his mid-thirties. Together they joined forces for Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, and what joyful music they make.

Fortunately camera shots are sensible and unobtrusive so we can simply relax and watch the show unfold. And it is a show, in some ways, as Bronfman unleashes brilliant, cascading roulades of right-hand action and detonates deep, stygian Bach-derived bass sculpting such as to draw heated excitement from the Berlin audience, who recall him time and again to the stage. I’m not surprised. I don’t associate him with this repertoire necessarily, but it’s clear he’s a worthy, but very different heir to titans such as Rubinstein. His is a very much heavier, more volatile, determined and obviously virtuosic approach. Rubinstein was airier, more playful. But this is an approach that truly does work, and this passionate, declamatory performance, is accomplished by means of an unflashy demeanour. He receives acute, sensitive and unusually thoughtful support from Sanderling and the Berlin Philharmonic, whose gossamer playing in the second movement is a delight, the winds especially. This is a performance as droll as it is trenchant. And it’s instructive too to see just how much hand crossing there is in this concerto.

Don’t overlook the post-concerto shenanigans. One elderly fiddler in the first violins of the orchestra repeatedly tells Bronfman something as he walks back to take his applause. It doesn’t look like ‘well done’; rather it looks as if he’s giving him advice. Maybe he did, because eventually, after the orchestra leaves the stage, Bronfman returns, sits down and plays an encore, a little Scarlatti sonata, and very nicely—at which point a few of the players come scurrying back to listen. I find this kind of detail fascinating. Who was this fiddler? What did he say? Did Bronfman defer?

After this we have a Sanderling speciality, honed in Leningrad alongside Mravinsky; Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. He’s significantly slower now than he had been. It’s more of a twilight performance than one straining at the leash, that’s for sure. If you’re familiar with Sanderling’s classic recording, you’ll note just how much more deliberate he’s become…But the orchestra plays very well for Sanderling, and seems convinced by him, and by his authority in the work. He remains spry at 80, cueing with the minimum of fuss, and even directing without the baton in one section.

I enjoyed this DVD very much indeed. It was good to see Sanderling, and just as good to see Bronfman, and the conductor, making great music in the Saint-Saëns.

James A. Altena
Fanfare, March 2011

This is a frustrating release, with a potential for unqualified greatness that goes unrealized. It opens with an absolutely terrific performance of the Saint-Saëns concerto—a really tough work to pull off successfully, not just because of the technically demanding piano part but because of the almost insuperable difficulty of integrating the opening Andante sostenuto movement with its Germanic neo-Bachian weightiness with the very French and comparatively almost frivolous-sounding Allegro scherzando and Presto movements that follow (a succession once waggishly tagged “from Bach to Offenbach”). Here Yefim Bronfman and Kurt Sanderling succeed splendidly. The pianist yields nothing to any of his formidable rivals on CD—Aldo Ciccolini, Jean-Philippe Collard, Stephen Hough, Pascal Rogé, or Gabriel Tacchino in classic complete sets, and Artur Rubinstein as a decades-long proprietor of this specific work—in either technical prowess or interpretive panache. Better yet, Sanderling provides support from the podium far superior to that which this work is wont to have; the Russian and the German combine adroitly to invest the whole with a gravitas that makes all three movements flow seamlessly together, without becoming either bogged down or precious in any way.

Unfortunately, after the superlative opening the remainder of the program falters. The brief Scarlatti encore makes no impression. As for the Tchaikovsky, Sanderling’s weighty, almost granitic approach to the score has been long familiar from his DG recording of some 50 years ago with the Leningrad Philharmonic. This rendition bears the age of the intervening decades, being afflicted with leaden tempi and an almost suffocating Teutonic earnestness. The timings of its four movements here are 21:31, 11:12, 6:16, and 10:50, as compared with 18:50, 8: 25, 5:06, and 7:55 for Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony (my benchmark performance) and 17:14, 8:59, 5:09, and 8:10 for Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia (a sometimes quirky but exciting alternative). Under Sanderling, the closing Allegro con fuoco becomes Andante con lumbago. More is the pity, because the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is absolutely sterling, with an intensity that almost overcomes the glacial pacing and is showcased by excellent recorded sound and camerawork considerably more varied and imaginative than the norm. Had the tempi been reasonable, this would have been a performance for the ages.

This release is recommended for the Saint-Saëns if you really desire that on DVD, but not for the Tchaikovsky.

Ivan March
Gramophone, December 2010

Bronfman brings weight and elegance to Saint-Saëns’s Second Concerto

Kurt Sanderling and Yefim Bronfman joined together during 1992 in the Berlin Philharmonie for this memorable live concert which opens with a quite dazzling performance of the most popular of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos. This was a favourite work of Arthur Rubinstein, who recorded it three times. But his reading was relatively lightweight, which it certainly is not in the hands of Yefim Bronfman, who plays the first movement with the power and expressive elegance of early Beethoven. There is tremendous virtuosity too, which then extends to the delightful Scherzando, a complete, delicate contrast, where the DVD camera lets us watch his mercurial hands in astonishment as well as pleasure. The audience rightly insists on an encore and Bronfman follows with a captivatingly delicate account of Scarlatti’s C minor Sonata.

The second half of the concert is no less stimulating and satisfying, for Kurt Sanderling perfected his reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony during his years in Leningrad. Yet it is not a driven reading in the Mravinsky style, but one in which the music flows naturally and builds its exciting climaxes with unforced spontaneity. Seldom has Tchaikovsky’s structural skill in the first movement been more apparent, and the work’s detail throughout all four movements is grippingly revealed, with the Andantino beautifully phrased and the finale a jubilant conclusion. This is among the most revealing accounts available: the sound and simple video direction are both excellent.

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7:59:57 PM, 3 September 2015
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