On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra demonstrated that you don’t need carols to channel holiday spirit. You just need bright guests and big portions.
So accustomed have concertgoers become to the usual three-course, prix fixe programs that our stomachs may rumble at any disruption to the cadence. But the nearly full concert hall on Thursday sounded more than satisfied with the evening’s meat and potatoes: Led by Finnish conductor Dima Slobodeniouk and joined by pianist Yefim Bronfman, the NSO delivered piping hot accounts of Brahms’s formidable 1881 “Piano Concerto No. 2″ and Tchaikovsky’s 1878 “Symphony No. 4.” It was the kind of concert you roll home from.
It was also the kind of concert that makes you wonder why we don’t get this one-two wallop approach more often. Certainly, a program of two works in the 40- to 50-minute range represents a more demanding test of already winnowing attention spans, not to mention one’s cough-stymying skills. But in the case of these two titanic works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, this balanced presentation of nearly contemporaneous music can offer listeners a useful sense of cohesion — and no small degree of tension.
After all, there’s some Bravo-level drama here. Pyotr had few sweet sentiments to share about Johannes.
Over the years, in diary entries and letters, Tchaikovsky slagged the slightly elder Brahms (with whom, seven years removed, he shared a birthday) as “a scoundrel,” a “giftless bastard” and “a caricature of Beethoven.”
“It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius,” he scratched to himself in his diary. “I can’t stand him,” he stated flatly in an 1880 letter to Nadezhda von Meck (the benefactress of his fourth symphony, and the “best friend” noted in its dedication).
For the sake of the holidays, it should be noted that an 1887 episode of yuletide partying in Leipzig did momentarily soften relations: “I went on the booze with Brahms — he’s awfully fond of drinking, you know; he’s a very nice person and not at all as proud as I had imagined.”
All that said, and despite a coupling neither composer would ever have authorized, these two big works got along well, falling helplessly into productive and often breathless conversation.
Slobodeniouk and Bronfman gave performances of workmanlike focus and oversize presence, navigating the concerto with an evident affection for its sentimental colors and shifting moods. This was extra so for the Finn, formerly the music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, and lately guesting up a storm with any top orchestra you can think of. A smart one will snatch him up.
Bronfman was in dazzling form, unleashing what often felt like an impossible lightness through the first movement and sustaining an easy dialogue with the strings, the oboes, the horns, as though breezing through a party.
The 65-year-old pianist is a pleasure to hear and to watch — even as he sits in patient silence awaiting his next entrance — bringing intense colors without a trace of showiness, concealing opulence with a bespoke fit.
He lit up the second movement — a bonus scherzo in this atypical concerto — with spiky accents contrasted by soft, introspective asides. Cellist David Hardy earned a post-show handshake from Bronfman and extended applause from the audience with sinuous lines woven through the gorgeously gossamer andante third movement.
And the finale was a fine example of teamwork between conductor and soloist, Bronfman and Slobodeniouk drawing its allegretto grazioso tight around them — with those elastic Hungarian rhythms and sprightly finish. Like any good party, it ended before you wanted it to.
(After long applause, Bronfman returned to answer encore demands with a whirling run through Chopin’s “Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor,” a.k.a. the “Revolutionary Étude.”)
Slobodeniouk’s return post-intermission made me wonder how much Red Bull is kept backstage at the Kennedy Center. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast that is “Symphony No. 4” — as tender and tumultuous a stretch of music as Tchaikovsky ever composed — but the conductor arrived to the stage seemingly recharged to relate an amplified account of this symphonic tug-of-war between the pleasures of life and the promise of fate.
From its bracing opening motto of horns, Slobodeniouk embraced the first movement’s grandeur and grace, while preserving its sense of proverbial personal space. He left vast stretches of negative space and let the orchestra grow into them — exciting builds of strings and beguiling themes from the flutes and woodwinds all achieved something like high definition.
The songlike second movement, with its silken oboe, was gorgeously realized — though I might have liked a bit more bottom and oomph in its refrains. The whimsical, bristling pizzicato-fest of the third movement scherzo would tickle any ASMR enthusiast — the dynamic gales blowing through the orchestra lifted harmonic swells to unexpected heights.
And its folk-infused “allegro con fuoco” finale built its modest theme — the Russian folk tune “In the field a little birch tree stood” — into towering statements of brass. Slobodeniouk was completely in charge of its racing tuttis and thrilling timbral collisions, its charging momentum and deluge of detail. It was a big finish to a colossal piece at the end of a long night — and a memorable helping of what we come to the concert hall for.
Yefim Bronfman plays Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 | Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony repeats on Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. kennedy-center.org/nso.