Sunday, March 13, 2011

Yefim Bronfman, piano recital

It’s kind of unfair to go to a concert—like last night’s piano recital by Yefim Bronfman—with a lot of preconceptions. Sometimes, those preconceptions are served up so powerfully that it is hard to shake them: just try to get the following passage by Philip Roth out of your head:

Then Bronfman appears. Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo. Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he's finished, I thought, they'll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn't let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever's in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything there out in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives now seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody - not if Bronfman has anything to say about it.

So, even though I’ve heard plenty of recordings of Bronfman as a sensitive chamber musician and playing delicate miniatures by Tchaikovsky, I still had this image of him as a piano-crushing force of nature. Well, Mr. Bronfman is a piano-crushing force of nature and a refined, romantically tinged miniaturist. That is to say, he’s a really good, well-rounded pianist.

The concert started almost abruptly with one of the late Haydn sonatas: Bronfman strode out, sat down and played, pretty much as one brusque motion. His Haydn was elegant, and certainly more romantically colored than Paul Lewis’ view of the classics. The playing was elegantly relaxed but not indulgent. This was followed by more Germanic jest, Schumann’s lumpy, amorphous Humoresque. This is written as a single ½ hour piece, but it jumps distractedly from thought to thought. Sometimes Schumann makes this work, as in the Papillons, but it’s hard to make the Humoresque sound like a unified whole. Bronfman presented the fragments eloquently, vividly illustrating humor and fancy and romance bubbling out of the depths of Schumann’s subconscious. Schumann’s fancy allowed Bronfman to alternate between lyrical poet and piano-crusher (and there were a few points where I really was worried about the piano: he’s a big, barrel-chested guy, needing a special riser for his bench, and he actually makes a Steinway D look kind of small.) However, whether it is Bronfman’s or Schumann’s fault, the piece as a whole didn’t quite add up.

The second half of the program was the Chopin Etudes Op. 10, one of the cornerstones of the piano repertoire. These give the pianist endless variety, and again gave Bronfman the opportunity for poetry and pyrotechnics. His poetry was of an interesting sort. He seemed to have a certain detachment, as if he was presenting the music with as little of his personal intervention as possible. In most cases (for example, Op. 10 No. 2 and 5), there is enough poetry built in that his approach pays off handsomely. I was left feeling that I’d heard a pretty pure distillate of Chopin. This approach also worked in the first two movements of the Haydn, most of the Schumann, and in one his encores, a perfect rendition of Schumann’s Arabesque.

However, there were occasions that left me wishing that Bronfman would put more of himself into the music. It would be less pure, yes, but more personal. His restraint from injecting himself into the music was noticeable in the last movement of the Haydn, in which he seemed to be reading Haydn’s jokes rather than telling them. A strong infusion of personality may have also served to unify the scattered elements of the Schumann Humoresque. It must be noted that this is a minor fault in an approach that is generally sound.

Bronfman’s pyrotechnics are of the highest order. The dazzlers in the Chopin set dazzled, just as they should, with Bronfman’s technique steamrolling these peaks of the repertoire into a level highway. He played the final “Revolutionary” Etude faster and more powerfully than I’ve ever heard it, and it sounded like he was showing some restraint. Restraint was discarded for the last encore: Bronfman finally engaged his top gears in a Liszt transcription of one of the Paganini caprices. Most of the Paganini caprices are pretty much void of musical depth: they are pure showing-off, a single catchy “hook” presented with lots of 10ths and double-stops and ricochets. Liszt was perfectly capable of doing the same thing on the piano, and when he transcribed Paganini, the result was a synergy of musical vacuity and pyrotechnics. Taken as such, it was enjoyably brainless fun that left me with an earworm that lasted the rest of the evening.

So, Bronfman the brontosaur? Life-affirming force of nature? Well, yes, but—a very poetic, sensitive brontosaur, capable of the greatest restraint and delicacy. I’ll leave Philip Roth to figure out how to put that into a nice image.

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