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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Concert Review: Flash of the Titans

Yefim Bronfman in recital at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Determination: Yefim Bronfman in concert. 
When the pianist Yefim Bronfman made his entrance at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, it was the start of a heroic confrontation between the burly Russian-born artist and the black Steinway: his vehicle to play sonatas by Haydn, Brahms and Prokofiev.

The concert opened with Franz Josef Haydn's Piano Sonata No. 60, a joyful work written by the composer for the pianist Therese Jansen during one of his late London tours. This composition features short, elegant themes, developed with Haydn's characteristic economy. The slow movement was played with great tenderness by Mr. Bronfman. The final movement builds a complicated structure of variations from this simple material.

Johannes Brahms is perceived as the heir to Beethoven. So commentators sometimes miss that the burly, bearded German labored to shatter the expectations of listeners and the restraints of "classical" style. The composer's Third Sonata, written in his young, firebrand years and brought to the repertory by his friend Clara Schumann, is one such work.

This sonata finds Brahms experimenting with form, predicting the Seventh symphony of Mahler with a five-movement structure framing a central Scherzo. The second and fourth are closely related, a lyric essay on the sound of moonlight and a dour commentary on the same notes, transformed into the sonata's funeral march.

The heaven-storming opening pages recall Beethoven, as does the massive structure of the opening movement. The resemblance stops in the central three movements, two related pieces with a central scherzo. This Mahlerian model featured some reflective playing as Brahms evoked  a Romantic moonlight, and then a more somber edge in the reflective minor-key intermezzo.

Mr. Bronfman struck a delicate balance in this great sonata, playing the Steinway with sweet, singing toe but also underlining the big dramatic movements as they occurred in the score. The final movement was almost playful, a capering theme and variations that is occasionally altered nu a lyric theme with soft minor-key glissandi up and down the keys. The rhythm grew more insistent and manic as the finale barreled forward, culminating in virtuoso passages where Mr. Bornfman' hands threatened to spring ahead of the piano's capability to reproduce the music.

For the second half of the concert, Mr. Bronfman did battle with Serge Prokofiev's Eighth Piano Sonata, a challenging work. The opening is deceptive, almost lyrical with its wide intervals, but the subsequent development and expansion of musical ideas allowed the soloist to display his technical ability, imbuing the music with passion. This is one of Prokofiev's "war" sonatas, but the mood is sad and nostalgic in the first two movements.

The short, stately central movement was just as nostalgic, recalling the salons and ball rooms of European society before the onslaught of the 20th century. Prokofiev uses the same sad musical ideas here, inverting his ideas and playing them in a slow series of cascading intervals.

The finale was all blazing power, from the opening quicksilver runs to establishing the bass ostinato that drove this acrobatic movement forward. Under Mr. Bronfman's driving, criss-crossing hands, the final bars became a strident tocsin, a warning that rang out to voice the fear and alarm of the Soviet Union at war. Mr. Bronfman played the last chord fully from the shoulders, rising up and nearly sliding off his piano bench as he slammed the final note home.

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