Minnesotan pianist, Kenneth Broberg, fresh off winning the Silver Medal at last year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now touring around the world to face the real jury: the audience. His was the last recital of the trio of 2017 winners, all of whom were invited by the Steinway Society of the Bay Area, giving their ardent fans an opportunity to compare them.
Like most recent competition winners, Broberg’s recital derived mostly from his competition repertoire. Yet, he also added the immensely lovable, Children’s Corner suite by Debussy, an unusual choice compared with all the competition blockbusters.
He opened with a well-grounded, solid rendition of the piano arrangement of César Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations. Broberg remained faithful to the different timbres that an organ can produce: The bass pedal-point anchored the soundscape, while exquisitely balanced voices added vibrant colors. The Bach Toccata in C Minor continued to show off Broberg’s sensitivity to tonal color, which accentuated different lines. Broberg also brought textural clarity through impeccable control of articulations, using different levels of staccato to distinguish the voices of the fugue. It was not difficult to hear the influence from his teacher, Stanislav Ioudenitch, who won a gold at Van Cliburn in 2001.
Debussy Children’s Corner provided a lighthearted interlude for an otherwise weapons-grade program. “Doctor Gradus ad Parnussum” was well articulated, depicting a child at a piano practicing diligently. Perhaps the imagery was almost too perfect, with every note given just the right amount of articulation so consistently. Yet the door slam at the end was humorous and elicited laughter from the audience. “Jimbo’s Lullaby” may not have been quite sleepy as a baby elephant struggling to fall asleep, but the following “Serenade of the Doll” was as imaginative as a child would make it. The alternating notes in “Snow is Dancing,” instead of being spaced evenly, as written in the score, were played almost together, robbing the piece of its serenity. It was a surprising choice given the meticulously placed notes in earlier pieces. The free reading of “The Little Shepherd,” with Broberg’s exquisite and generously broad sense of timing, worked well to depict an expansive space. “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” was delivered with comical punches, and the quotes from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were silly, but not absurd: just the right amount of humor.
After the intermission came the centerpiece of the program: the titanic Liszt Sonata in B Minor. This warhorse haunts every pianist, probing every possible human emotion from sweet tenderness to violent agony. Here, Broberg was calculated and measured from the very first notes. Maintaining his cool, he held a tight rein on the piece, keeping it from running away. His steady tempo, with sparing sustain pedal, kept the framework clear while letting the rage erupt violently when called for. Added octaves in the bass allowed the modern Steinway to roar, a palette that was not available to Liszt in 1853. Broberg was in control of this piece.
The fugal section was rendered with crispness that emphasized the sense of urgency. The torrential octaves in the coda were dispatched with an uncanny effortlessness, leading to a sense of unfettered triumph. The stoic end with the incessant “hammer-blow” theme wrapped up the piece nicely, as if the allegorical story illustrated in the work would continue eternally.
Broberg concluded the afternoon program with a ravishing rendition of the Chopin Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3.
Many pianists after their competition success are invited by the Steinway Society to return. Just as I had the pleasure of hearing such pianists as Sean Chen and Yeol Eum Son immediately after their competition success, then as more established pianists, I look forward to hearing Broberg again.