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The Verge of Greatness

New York
Alice Tully Hall
04/30/2000 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: 32 Variations in C Minor WoO 80, Sonata # 13, Sonata # 23
Alban Berg: Sonata, Seven Early Songs

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Unbeknownst to his brother Alban, Charlie Berg approached Arnold Schoenberg, the greatest pedagogue in Vienna, to try and convince him to allow his talented sibling entrance into the professor's master classes in composition. Charlie brought with him the one finished work of Alban, an amazing tonal picture for solo piano. Schoenberg accepted Berg on the basis of this one work and as a result changed the course of music history forever. Some years later Alban, now comfortably in the fold of the Second Viennese School, opened his old piano bench and resurrected seven early songs which he had written in the days prior to his apprenticeship with Schoenberg and spruced up the piano score, later orchestrating all seven of these miniatures for full orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas has pointed out that the landscape of contemporary music would have been very different if Berg had not succumbed obscenely early in his fiftieth year from blood poisoning induced by the bite of a wasp and it is equally legitimate to consider what type of music this brilliant student would have written if he had signed on with another master of the day, for example Schoenberg's brother-in-law (and teacher of Berg's friend Alma Mahler) Alexander Zemlinsky. Would the future composer of Wozzeck and Lulu have produced scores in the "beautiful dirt" tradition of the other fin-de-siecle composers, such as Wolf and Strauss? No one knows, of course, but this recital by the brilliant Yefim Bronfman posed these questions by juxtaposing Berg's early music with that of another revolutionary, the young and restless Beethoven.

Bronfman eschewed the traditional piano recital in order to present two programs (the other is next weekend) wherein the thematic material of these two young lions would be compatible and interestingly presented. His performance of the Berg Sonata was simply the best live version that I have ever heard, Bronfman shaping the seemingly loose threads of melody into a magnificent coherent whole. Although he resembles many other Russian pianists in his bounteous girth, Mr. Bronfman is actually an artist who possesses a lighter touch and a very sensitive ear to the poetry of a piece. His ending of the Berg with its delicate high note phrases juxtaposed against a figured bass was deeply moving and left the sparse audience stunned However, as a proselytizer for the music of Berg, Bronfman still needs to refine his thinking and program a more suitable soprano to pull off these beautiful and extremely lyrical early songs. The Sieben fruehe lieder require a singer of fluid line and this was not in the armamentarium of Ms. Brewer, a soprano who underwhelmed me earlier this season in Philadelphia when she was so hopelessly outgunned by the powerful Hagen Hakegard in the Shostakovich Symphony # 14 under Sawallisch. Ms. Brewer has a very heavy voice, more suitable for opera than lieder, and literally ruined Berg's lyrical flow by breathing in all of the wrong places. Berg could easily have appropriated his master's most famous comment and said of this performance "my songs are not bad, just badly sung".

Of Bronfman's Beethoven, I can only say that it was magnificent. The Sonata Quasi una Fantasia, almost always upstaged by its more famous twin the "Moonlight", is one of my personal favorite bits of the meister's piano music and this man presented it brilliantly. His touch was always nimble and light and his sense of formlessness was spot on (this is truly the magic in this particular piece). His "Appassionata" was remarkable for his ability to let us hear the entire conception of the work in just the first few notes. Not a key-pounding approach which let loose all of the demons of Hell, Bronfman's interpretation was more noble and classically beautiful like a statue. He held himself in check even in the glorious finale, keeping the responses during the crosshanded section within the bounds of deist reason and performing the ending presto at an alarming but controlled rate of pianistic intensity. We all jumped out of our chairs the instant that this great artist was finished and applauded him wildly. Next week we will do it all again with other works of these two young geniuses. I for one can hardly wait.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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