Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5; Choral Fantasia
Rather than opt for superficial barnstorming, Yefim Bronfman and David Zinman offer us a discreet, subtly voiced and above all durable Emperor, a version that I’ve already listened to a number of times with increasing musical dividends. Bronfman plays with a light, precise though never brittle touch, always phrasing elegantly and dipping his tone whenever important instrumental lines need to be heard. A good sampling-point arrives at around 7'10" into the opening Allegro, where clearly audible rising string figurations (the cellos) busy away beneath the solo line; then a couple of minutes further on, note how the woodwind lines descend while lightly bowed strings scurry upwards.
These might seem like minor points but they’re symptomatic of how all the participants are listening to each other. The slow movement unfolds in a mood of unruffled calm, Bronfman’s first entry gentle, delicate, with an appropriate, even touching simplicity. The finale is brisk and energetic and I like the way Bronfman keeps accompanying rhythmic figurations light and well buoyed.
The fill-ups are worthwhile, the Choral Fantasy’s long solo opening more thoughtful than usual and with a bright, easy-going contribution from the chorus. Nothing is ever forced or overstated and the contrast in the seven-minute Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage between worrying stillness (“calm” in this case signalling immobility at sea) and the first signs of a redeeming breeze, ingeniously painted by slowly swirling triplets (from 4'18"), is superbly handled.
As to credible digital rivals in the Emperor, Aimard and Harnoncourt (Teldec, 4/03) allow themselves a rather freer hand but I can’t imagine anyone being less than satisfied with Bronfman and Zinman, the Tonhalle Orchestra scoring top marks for teamwork, their woodwinds sounding fully on a par with Europe’s best. Superbly balanced sound helps clinch an unmissable bargain.