Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Can you seriously question the reality of global warming when Bramwell Tovey conducts the New York Philharmonic in the dark of December? Mr. Tovey is best known in New York for having been the host and conductor of the Philharmonic’s defunct Summertime Classics series from 2004 to 2014. Those were relatively informal concerts calculated to beat the heat, offering standard and lightish fare, which this genial British maestro introduced with witty palaver — often charming, occasionally tedious.
But opening the Philharmonic’s subscription week this Wednesday evening, he was all business and no talk, though most of this program — Smetana’s overture to “The Bartered Bride” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in Ravel’s orchestration — could have passed poppy muster in the dog days of July. Only Bartok’s angular and eruptive Second Piano Concerto might have posed a bit of a challenge for listeners, and that was mollified by the presence of Yefim Bronfman, one of New York’s favorite pianists.
As Mr. Bronfman’s physique would suggest, he is capable of tremendous power, and the Bartok offered ample opportunity to deploy it. But more remarkable is his touch; Mr. Bronfman never pummels the keyboard.
What’s more, he commands great delicacy and subtlety of expression, as appropriate, and that, too, was evident here, especially in his stealthy interplay with the fine timpanist, Markus Rhoten, in the second movement, against a backdrop of hushed and mysterious strings. As if to drive the point home, Mr. Bronfman added as encore a melting account of Chopin’s E major Étude (Op. 10, No. 3).
Mr. Tovey, who has served as music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000, a position he will soon leave to become the principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra in London, gave the Philharmonic a fairly free hand to try to drown out Mr. Bronfman in the Bartok’s outer movements, though any such attempts were futile. In the Smetana overture, the volume proved more problematic at Mr. Tovey’s fast tempo, and a few passages that needed pinpoint articulation turned muddy.
The Mussorgsky was more successful: deliberately paced and well differentiated in color from one scene to the next. Some of the colors were questionable, but amusingly so, as when the brasses evoked rude bodily sounds in “Gnomus” (“Gnome”).
The orchestra players seemed to relish the opportunity to strut their stuff. Christopher Martin, the principal trumpeter, was especially brilliant, as always, in his various solos. The trombones were excellent and beautifully blended, and though the tuba player, Alan Baer, struggled through his big number, “Bydlo” (“Polish Oxcart”), he recovered well in the big blows that followed. Lino Gomez, the guest saxophonist, more than held his own in this exalted company.