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Yefim Bronfman Brightens the Keyboard

October 11, 2011

Cal Performances

Yefim BronfmanYefim Bronfman, affectionately known as “Fima,” has long belonged to the pantheon of pianists. He tours the world to perform with its best orchestras, to wrangle such titanic concertos as those by Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartók. His Tuesday recital for Cal Performances provided a rare opportunity to hear him all alone.

Bronfman opened with the Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5. Even with its grand symphonic character, it is a young composition, written when Brahms was just 20.

After a thunderous opening that began barely after sitting down at the piano, Bronfman reined in the atmosphere quickly for the broody first theme. The orchestral colors of the work were vividly presented, with articulately enunciated timpani in the bass, along with the brass trios from the right hand emanating flawlessly, with well-defined layers. Closing my eyes, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the orchestral colors Brahms must have had in mind. It should come as no surprise that Brahms later sketched his orchestral works as a piano piece, which at another time he orchestrated into the final work.

Unfortunately, Bronfman’s efforts were marred by Zellerbach Hall’s acoustics. With its electroacoustic system, the simulated reverberations often overwhelmed the sound directly from the piano, muddying the treble notes and making them indistinct when bathed in the thunderous bass notes. Bronfman seemed frustrated after the first movement, taking a long pause while the audience indulged in enthusiastic sighs and coughs.

The colors were much more hushed in the second movement, a love duet. Here, the atmosphere was as if time had stopped outside the hall. The interweaving duets in intervals of sixths seemed to cast a gentle spotlight on an otherwise dark scene, matching that of the actual lighting on the stage. The intense climax grew orchestrally, almost as a divine blessing of the lovers. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ardor Brahms would later feel for Clara Schumann, whom he met the year he wrote the sonata.

The strength that Bronfman possessed was the power of storytelling.

Returning to a less intimate atmosphere, the Scherzo was a dance, but perhaps less elastic and energetic than heard in Bronfman’s own recording, taking away some vibrancy. Again, the poor acoustics were a factor, diminishing the crispness from sharp staccatos. Yet, the roar in the coda section of the last movement shook the hall, with the full brass section blaring, with Bronfman seemingly a soloist in a hypothetical piano concerto. It was a triumphant ending.

And Now for a Little Downpour

The Liszt Transcendental Études, S. 139, Nos. 4, 11, and 12, which followed, made for a complete scene change. Being less introspective than Brahms, with clearly delineated lines and layers, its technical tours de force were certainly a crowd-pleaser. Here, Bronfman took no prisoners, unleashing the torrent of octaves and a Niagara Falls–like downpour of notes from the heavens. The experience was visceral, and Bronfman delivered. Yet, the quieter Étude No. 11 showed the widest range of colors and dynamics, which breathed more than merely bravura into the soul of the piece.

The real meat of the evening was the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8, Op. 84 in B-flat Major, a true warhorse. In this work, the last of the three “War Sonatas,” Bronfman laid out a deliberate, vivid narrative that helped conjure an image of the war scene that ravaged Europe while the composer was writing the three sonatas. From the heavy, leaden fog over a barren battle field in the opening, to the melody like a lullaby from an abandoned music box, Bronfman created a dramatic, cinematic scene that almost cried out for kaleidoscopic images to be projected on the upstage wall. In the event, the musical imagery proved vivid enough for this listener.

The strength that Bronfman possessed was the power of storytelling. He provided structure to the various levels of sonority and deliberate phrasing, rendering a four-dimensional scene in which the audience traveled. The haunting yet dreamy second movement was a reminiscence of a more peaceful but distorted past, illustrated using different color palettes for each segment of the image. In the last movement, the atmosphere was full of anticipation, with dancing rhythms beckoning. The incessant beats of the left hand evoked a military march, perhaps of returning soldiers from hard-won victory. They were not entirely victors, however, as they told of the suffering that was a significant part of the battle. In the end, the audience was rewarded with an explosive ending that made both Bronfman and the audience jump to their feet.

Bronfman rewarded listeners with two encores: Chopin’s Études, Op. 10, Nos. 8 and 12, respectively in F major and C minor. After a dense program of Brahms and Prokofiev sonatas, these études almost seemed light and playful. Bronfman delivered them with such lightness that they seemed like a soufflé after a rich meal.

Ken Iisaka is a pianist, a software engineer, and bon vivant living in Foster City.