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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Concert Review: The Individual Against the System

Yefim Bronfman closes his Prokofiev cycle at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The hands. Yefim Bronfman.
Portrait photo by Dario Acosta from the artist's website.
The classical music schedule is a big, hectic thing with artists girdling the globe in their efforts to meet each year's long slate of concerts and professional obligations. Sometimes, though things get re-scheduled and pushed to the very end of the season. That's what happened Saturday at Zankel Hall, when pianist Yefim Bronfman finally played the much-delayed final concert in his ambitious concert project exploring Serge Prokofiev's set of nine sonatas for solo piano.

For this concert, Mr. Bronfman and violinist Guy Braunstein worked out an intriguing program. The two slated Prokofiev sonatas (No. 5 and No. 9) alternated with the composer's two violin sonatas. This allowed for a broad overview of this composer's different and varying styles, and the feeling that the concert was not so much a formal recital as a relaxed and intimate evening shared between an appreciative audience and artist at the tail end of a long season.

That said, this is not easy music. Prokofiev's Sonata No. 5 is a bold creation from the composer's exile period when he chose to leave Russia for life in the West. Its opening Adagio tranquillo starts with a chipper little tune that quickly twists itself into a dark and contorted shape, with harmonies that shift further and further into twilight. As the music developed, the optimistic theme reasserted itself again and again, only to torment itself into new and darker directions.

In the slow movement, Mr. Bronfman played with crisp execution but also caught the gauzy impression of a dark and sinister carnival that permeates this movement. Propulsive rhythm dominated the finale, showing this artist's particular dual gifts, a strong, muscular approach to pianism combined with a subtle, almost weightless approach to the most ender and intricate passages.

That approach reaped rewards in the Violin Sonata No. 1, which brought Mr. Braunstein to the stage. This was Prokofiev at his most coded and experimental. Mr. Bronfman played with great power here. The icy chords from his piano created a frozen lake of sound, a clear surface for the solo violin line to skate over. The four expansive movements capture the composer in his darkest mood, and the sonata (written in 1938) hints at the oppression of his life back under the watchful eye of the Soviet state and the rumblings of the war yet to come.

The second half jumped to the composer's late period with the Ninth and last of his sonatas for solo piano.  (A tenth and eleventh were planned by the compose but exist as unfinished fragments.) This work is in a sunny and yet bittersweet mood, with Mr. Bronfman playing its three movements with graceful, fluid tone. And yet this would be a false dawn for Prokofiev, coming just before the composer's music was censured (for "formalism") by the Soviet state, an act that would result in the last five years of his life being spent in miserable silence.

The concert concluded with another sunny work, the Violin Sonata No. 2. Built on the bones of earlier work for piano and flute, this piece captured the pianist and violinist in a cheerful collaboration, with the two musicians challenging each other to greater flights of instrumental fancy as they careened through its four movements. Even the slow movement was only a brief pause before the joyful helter-skelter finish. As an encore, Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Braunstein offered a slow movement from one of Mozart's violin sonatas, a tantalizing hint of collaborations to come from these fine artists.

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