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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.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Concert Review: Time Standing Still

efim Bronfman returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yefim Bronfman, shown here in performance at the 92nd St Y,
returned to Carnegie Hall this week. Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic.
One of the pleasurable difficulties in covering so-called “classical” music concerts is encountering an artist for whom the word “criticism should not be too stringently applied. Such an artist is the pianist Yefim Bronfman, who returned to Carnegie Hall on Thursday night for a solo recital of Debussy, Schumann and Schumann. All the works chosen were executed at a very high level indeed.

Well, that was easy, wasn't it? Ok. Maybe a little more.

Mr. Bronfman opened his performance with Debussy's Suite Bergamesque. These four piano pieces were (very gentle) shots fired in the launch of the Impressionist movement. The third section of the suite, Clair de lune, has transcended the concert stage to become a touchstone of commercial, cinematic and popular culture. Its arching, diaphanous melody appears in both The Right Stuff and the re-make of Ocean's 11 (where it is there in tribute to that earlier film) and has come to be associated with the smug sense of an enterprise successfully achieved.

Mr. Bronfman seemed more interested in the lesser known outer movements that surround this familiar core. His touch, arpeggiating delicately down the keyboard over gentle, rolling clouds of left-hand chords was a kind of legerdemain for the ears. His precision also illuminated the connection that exists between Debussy, perceived in his day as an upstart and the centuries of French musical theory and tradition that had brought him there. There was an emphasis throughout on grace and delicate flavor over the cruder delights of Romanticism.

Those er...delights were on full and vivid display in the next piece, the Humoreske by Robert Schumann. Schumann was an iconoclast, an unabashed Romantic who made great effort to destroy the "classical" forms that had come before, whether in the context of his massive single-movement Piano Sonata No. 1 (which is, despite its title, not "really" a piano sonata) or through works like this: a sprawling composition that is the composer's take on that most cherished of forms, the Rondo.

The result is sprawling, as Schumann experiments with combining the repeated precision of a classical rondo form with a set of increasingly fraught outbursts of pianistic frenzy. Add to the fact that this single long movement has numerous stopping points (rather like an early Bruckner symphony) and the soloist's task is maintaining the architecture of this increasingly free-form piece. That paradox was ably solved by Mr. Bronfman's performance. He took the small pauses but let his fingers fly free, using his ability and coherence of performed thought to wrestle this barrier-busting work into some kind of disciplinary order. He succeeded.

The second half featured a different kind of marathon work: the C minor Sonata by Franz Peter Schubert. This work is all about pushing the boundaries of form as first delineated by Haydn and Beethoven. Mr. Bronfman brought a stern power to the opening staccato chords, launching into the main thematic idea of the opening movement with a touch that alternated between forceful and gentle. The second movement had that quality of stopping time, its wistful melody unhurriedly unwinding itself after the rigors of the opening.

A tiny Scherzo followed, a playful dance movement half as long as the others in this sonata. It was the windup for the pitch: a pell-mell final movement that taxed the pianist to the utmost of his considerable abilities. The tricky, skipping right hand figure was propelled by the perpetual motion of the left, the whole rising to a series of thrilling climaxes. Mr. Bronfman then obliged the standing ovation with a pair of stellar encores: a wistful baroque movement (most likely Scarlatti, to this writer's guess) and a stormy closer that brought the audience to its feet once more.

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