The New York Philharmonic regularly features first-class soloists from around the world, but it is always a special event when local heroes take the stage. This month two beloved New York–based pianists are joining the Orchestra in concerts that promise to offer spectacular music-making. Yefim Bronfman, who was honored with a seat on the Orchestra’s Board after many appearances with the organization, will be heard in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on January 16, 18, 19, and 22. And Emanuel Ax, named an Honorary Member of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society after performing his 100th concert with the ensemble, returns in a musical double header, January 30–31, and February 1–2, playing Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11, and Stravinsky’s Capriccio.
The two longtime friends admire each other’s talents. “Fima,” as his friends call Bronfman, was famously cited by novelist Philip Roth as a titan to whom a piano must surrender with “hands in the air.” Yet, says Ax, Bronfman is not only “a powerhouse physically, but also artistically. What makes him special is the sensibility—a wonderful heart and mind.” (When told of what “Manny” says of him, Fima says the feeling is mutual.) Audiences will enjoy that side of his artistry as he plays one of Beethoven’s more classically restrained works. But in some ways, Bronfman believes, this Beethoven concerto is “epic. It’s actually very difficult. He wrote it for himself to perform and the passagework is challenging. But if someone said when I perform, ‘It looked very difficult,’ I would retire that day.”
One challenging element in the concerto is the cadenza at the end of the first movement—the section in which the piano adds a kind of musical commentary without orchestral accompaniment. “It was written later,” the pianist explains, “and in it you can see the evolution of his compositional style. It is like a little Hammerklavier Sonata. Much of this piece is in the style of Haydn, yet it already shows the character of the later, more virtuosic Beethoven.”
When the two pianist-friends appear together, they can be dangerously funny. Ax recalls the time they played a piano duet and the large-framed Bronfman explained to the audience it was just to prove they could both fit on the piano bench together. And another when, while Manny was performing the “Elephant” movement of Carnival of the Animals, Fima walked out onto the stage with a dollar bill in a cup and placed it on the piano. This January, the mood will be more serious.
But for an attentive listener, there will be lots to enjoy. The Haydn and Stravinsky, says Ax, are both rather short, but there is a lot going on in them, including Eastern European influences. “The Haydn Rondo is Hungarian, quirky, and filled with grace notes.” The second movement of the Stravinsky has Romanian hints, like an imitation of the sound of a hammered dulcimer. “I think of it as a kind of circus piece,” he says. “It is mock-serious in the first movement, then crazy and jumping around in the second movement. I sometimes wonder if Stravinsky got the idea from Chico Marx—you have to jump with your hand up two octaves and hit the top notes, just like Chico used to do. It’s hard to hit!”
For both men, part of the excitement will be the opportunity to work with Jaap van Zweden, as well as the Philharmonic’s brilliant musicians.
“I played with Jaap when he was just starting out, in The Hague,” says Ax, “and I thought, ‘This guy has a lot of personality and pizzazz. He’s got all the qualities.’” Bronfman adds: “He insists on getting musically whatever he has in mind. I find that very appealing.”
And of the Philharmonic, after decades of collaboration, Ax says: “There is a whole new generation in the Orchestra. With every instrument, I’ve never heard a level like now. It is so phenomenal.” Bronfman also describes the Philharmonic as an orchestra of first-rate virtuosos: “When I played with them in China last summer,” he recalls, “their Brahms Second Piano Concerto almost brought me to tears.”
Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is When the World Stopped To Listen: Van Cliburn’s Triumph and Its Aftermath (Knopf).