New piano concerto Firsova achieves something magical

The Russian composer couple Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov settled in England after the fall of the Soviet Union and became famous there; in the Netherlands their music can be heard less often. Thursday went Firsova’s new Piano Concerto world premiere in the Concertgebouw, as the conclusion of master pianist Yefim Bronfman’s residency with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. From Smirnov stood Pastoral (1975) on the programme: schematic, but imaginatively elaborated nature music, with a starring role for the birdsong of piccoloist Vincent Cortvrint.

It was the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s first concert in the Concertgebouw since the appointment of Klaus Mäkelä as future chief (the orchestra had already played Der Freischütz at Dutch National Opera). Guest conductor Jakub Hrusa (40) had the somewhat thankless task of returning to the order of the day after all the euphoria and did it well, with the Suite ‘From a house of the dead’ by his compatriot Janácek and the Concerto for orchestra by Lutoslawski, of which he brought great tension to the imposing final part.

Firsova’s Chamber Concert during the Stift Festival 2021:

It Piano Concerto of Firsova turned out to be a special case. She completed it in March 2020, when her husband Smirnov was already ill; he died of corona a month later. Although according to the composer it has nothing to do with his death, the form of the work did seem to have been touched by the unforeseen. After two succinct parts it headed for an unsatisfactory ending: well made, colorful, at times original, but also somewhat predictable.

The third and final movement, however, took one surprising turn after another: enchanting violin flageolets, Alban Berg-esque sultry, choruses of trombones and horns against which Bronfman unfolded a brilliantly wandering song of life, stirring the orchestra to a collective climax. A drawn-out piano cadence went back to ideas from the first two movements, but also entered into wonderful dialogues, for example with pizzicato celli and basses. At that point, Firsova had stopped time and accomplished something magical.

Also read: Musicians from Concertgebouw Orchestra about new chef Mäkelä: ‘It was love at first hearing’

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