Review: Storgårds, NACO and Yefim Bronfman deliver full-throttled performances

John Storgårds. Photo: Heikki Tuuli

Whenever Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds is in town, the NAC Orchestra plays with a little extra fire in its belly. The musicians appear particularly fond of the passionate Finnish maestro, who returns their warm, fuzzy feelings feelings with enthusiasm.

Storgårds conducts with such a fine balance of rigour and intensity as to make even the most pedestrian repertoire come alive. With two more unconventional works bookending the well-worn Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto, this week’s program inspired Storgårds’ full-throttle approach even more than usual.

Arvo Pärt’s 1994 composition Trisgarion may not be fast or flamboyant, but its clean, scoured lines nonetheless challenge and expose the strings without mercy. Friday night, conducting stickless, with clear-cut gestures more like those of a choral director, Storgårds insisted on perfect intonation, pinpoint attack, an earthy colour palette and a monastic feeling of space, breath, and contemplative awe.

Yefim Bronfman. Photo: David Acosta

In the Beethoven, the ever-dependable Yefim Bronfman was a study in efficiency through immobility. His broad back never moved. His features remain focused but relaxed — what sports coaches call a “soft gaze,” taking everything in without reacting unnecessarily. Nothing was wasted: all his energy, expression and power-lifter strength were focused down into his fingers. This was a majestic Beethoven 4, expansive, generous, full of smiling humour. For all his reputation as a bruiser, Bronfman has always been like the best prizefighters, capable of speed, grace and astonishing delicacy. His pedalling, while unorthodox, was masterful, greatly enhancing the piano’s projection at the softest dynamics, especially in the cadenza. Storgårds’ vigorous, firm accompaniment held its own against Bronfman’s outsized performance. The contrasting dialogue in the second movement between the stern, adamant orchestra and the gently pleading piano was vividly realized. As an encore, Bronfman played Scarlatti’s melancholic, floss-fine C minor Sonata K11.

Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 5, which hasn’t been heard at NACO since the early 1970s, is known for its radiant evocation of the English countryside. It’s not a personal favourite; I’ve always found it a little too placid and pastoral, with its endlessly oscillating pentatonic scales.

Still, Storgårds made a convincing case for the work, creating great shining planes of sound between the instrument groups. The scherzo had the churning, swirling shape of a murmuration of starlings. In the slow third movement, led off by Anna Petersen’s languid cor anglais solo, the maestro shaped the lines with fervent gestures to bring out the vocal, spiritual qualities of the music. The final passacaglia swept toward its climactic fortissimo with a clear sense of purpose and impulsion.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.