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Power (from him) to the People (us)

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/12/2010 -  and March 2 (Vienna)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor, WoO 80
Jörg Widmann: XI Humoresken (11 Humoresques)
Robert Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Joke in Vienna), Opus 26
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Sonata in G Major, Op. 37

Yefim Bronfman (Piano)

Y. Bronfman (© Dario Acosta)

New York’s concert-going populace anticipates a Yefim Bronfman as a wonderfully prepared, very carnivorous banquet. The dishes sizzle, the meatiest parts are cut with the daring of a master sushi chef, and if the music is infrequently rare, it is always well done.

Mr. Bronfman’s recital last night broke the usual mold. The traditional Bronfman fare was in the three encores–a Chopin Nocturne, Liszt’s second “Paganini” Etude (how the hell does he make the piano sound like a violin glissando?), and a Prokofiev Suggestion diabolique. The four main works were either unusual or unusually placed.

The set of Beethoven Variations didn’t have an opus number, but this hardly prevented the composer–like a Bronfman pianist–to make muscular, unusual and most masculine evolutions from his original theme. Mr. Bronfman played it with all the propulsion expected. But Mr. Bronfman is no mere dynamo. The pedaling was in sync with the harmonies, and each chord was laid down with almost tenderness, as if to show the transparency of the notes.

The final work wasn’t quite so successful, but this was not the pianist’s fault. Ever the complainer, Tchaikovsky kvetched even more than usual when writing this, and for good reason.

“This piece doesn’t come easily,” he wrote. “I work unsuccessfully.” “Little progress. I have to force myself. I have to squeeze weak and feeble ideas.” “I hope (italics mine) that imagination will strike.”

It never did. The last two movements are dazzling virtuosic displays (which Mr. Bronfman sailed through), but the first two should have been written for orchestra, where the lack of inspiration, the marches and elegies could have been painted with the usual drums and trumpets. Bravo to the pianist for offering this rarity, but hopefully not again.

For the middle two works–justly played without a break–he performed, for the second time in two years, Jörg Widmann’s XI Humoresken. Those pieces, inspired by Robert Schumann, were followed by Schumann’s own supposedly light-hearted Vienna Carnival Joke, which itself quotes from other composers.

Having the Widmann work for the second time, it was easier to sort out the subtexts, the quotes from others, which may have given the “humor” to the work. (Though the composer says it is “often a deadly serious affair.”)

Putting the Schummanesque titles–”Forest”, “Why?”, “Children’s Song”–to the music is like looking at a Picasso subject. The distortions are present, but they hardly take away from the inspiration. “Children’s Song” begins with a few simple childish tones, then quickly works into a series of most complex piano textures. “Forest” is not arboreal at all but has a jumpy surprising set of themes. “Why?” isn’t a philosophical question, but individual staccato chords, as if repeating the question.

The final longish “With humor and subtlety” is only for the master pianist. At times it sounds like salon, even elevator music. Then it works into some dissonant Schumann-style or Chopin-style passages, followed by dizzyingly difficult musical equations. Mr. Bronfman played them all (with score) as if they were child’s play.

Following that with Faschingsschwank (a neologism by the composer) was more familiar but equally intense. This was no light-hearted jest but an opening almost dangerous. Mr. Bronfman played that movement with such velocity that one thought he could fall off the tracks. He rescued himself in time (but not in time to avoid the audience applause, for which he graciously stood halfway up before continuing)

The Romance was a moment of sheer tranquility, and the Scherzino was driven hard. As was the Finale, a veritable whirlwind with a few moments of momentary joy before the great ending.

That most familiar piece, as well as the splendid encores, well showed a trio of Mr. Bronfman’s emblematic traits: powerhouse strength, unexpected grace, and relentless intensity.

Harry Rolnick



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