Unstoppable Momentum from Bronfman

20/02/2018

Schumann, Debussy, Prokofiev: Yefim Bronfman (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances and San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 18.2.2018. (HS)

SchumannArabesque in C major; Humoreske in B-flat major

DebussySuite bergamasque

Prokofiev — Piano Sonata No.7

There’s nothing like a headlong Prokofiev toccata to top off a piano recital, especially under the hands of the redoubtable Yefim Bronfman. Prokofiev is like mother’s milk for the Tashkent-born pianist. After a first half of generally relaxed Schumann and a cheeky romp through Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, he reached the finale of the Russian composer’s Sonata No.7, bursting with rhythmic insistence and tonal clarity, all the while keeping something in reserve for an even bigger finish.

About halfway through the three-and-a-half-minute movement — ‘Precipitato’ in Prokofiev’s tempo marking — the pace remained steady, but the music started to build palpably in intensity. At the final measures, with Bronfman’s arms exploding off the piano on the final chord, the near-capacity Sunday evening audience in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall roared its approval.

The musical distance to that moment from the sweet, innocent opening measures of Schumann’s Arabesque in C major, which opened the concert, spanned just about a century and was from a very different world. The rippling figures under Schumann’s simple tune, which Bronfman executed with consummate smoothness and polish, spoke of fresh air and grace. He shaped the music, employing more than a little rubato, into the liquid envisaged by the composer, and segued easily into a jaunty little march that completed the picture.

He approached Schumann’s Humoreske in B-flat major, a suite in all but name, with similar sense of chasteness, although the subsequent sections skewed in various directions. Bronfman shifted his touch easily to match each one’s vagaries—here a deft twinkle, there a bit of pretend pomposity, even some stormy moments before finishing with a zippy Allegro.

The second half began with Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, which contains the familiar ‘Clair de lune’—played with clear-eyed precision and no hint of sentimentality. The previous movements delivered swervy rubatos in the prelude and impudent humor in the Menuet. The finale was fittingly off-kilter as it comes close to parodying a Baroque passapied. Bronfman dispatched it all with canny wit.

Prokofiev’s sonata evokes the nervousness in the Soviet Union after Germany’s invasion, in the wake Stalin’s crackdowns on dissidents. The first two movements, marked ‘Allegro inquieto’ and ‘Andante caloroso’, created an ominous atmosphere, as the pianist set up the first movement’s hard-edged march, which burst into flares of dissonance, while the second movement’s grief permeated even soft, plangent phrases.

After that, the finale hit the ear like a fusillade, at first seeming to come from a distance, then finally overwhelming.

To calm things, Bronfman turned to Chopin for an encore, the Étude in E major, op.10 no.3, all limpid legato and sweet sadness.

Harvey Steiman

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