Bronfman Blazes Through Brahms and Prokofiev Sonatas, Liszt Études

United StatesUnited States  Brahms, Liszt, Prokofiev: Yefim Bronfman (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley, 10.11.2011 (HS)

At times, while he was playing high-speed octaves in “Mazeppa,” the fourth of Liszt’s Tanscendental Études, Yefim Bronfman’s hands looked like cartoon blurs. The music was not a blur, however. It emerged fully formed, a whole entity, surging with life. True, the first of three études on his challenging program — challenging for the pianist, at least — encountered a few miscues in early rapid-fire passages. But Bronfman simply forged ahead, building up a relentless head of steam that made the music seem to reach out, shake the listener by the lapels and demand to make connections.

Bronfman walked us through the opening measures of Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 3 so gently that the power of its climaxes seemed to arrive unexpected. The fiery flamboyance of the three Liszt Études concluded the first half like a series of explosions. After intermission he caught every nuance of Prokofiev’s colorful, dramatic Piano Sonata No. 8, and dashed off a couple of Chopin Études as encores as if they were child’s play.

The Brahms was a monument to discipline, with the sense in the opening movement of an unfolding, the themes building ever so gradually. The Andante relaxed into a gorgeous, unhurried nocturne, as Bronfman savored the sweetness and simplicity of the harmonies before embarking on the impetuous Scherzo. This pianist’s flair for Russian music stood him in good stead here, bringing the same demonic energy to this movement that he might to Rachmaninov or, well, Prokofiev. The fourth movement, a sort of intermezzo-cum-funeral march, let the energy gather for the finale, in which Bronfman rode the music to a series of crashing climaxes, never losing the thread or ignoring a single detail in the buildup.

“Mazeppa” is a nonstop sprint through ceaseless runs that play against two, sometimes three lines or fast-moving chords. Bronfman excels in bringing out just the right layer at just the right time in music like this. He can weave the most complex tapestry into a coherent narrative that lets the ear follow the line effortlessly. In “Harmonies du Soir,” he traced a delicate filigree of fleet runs in the right hand while the left created a peaceful starry world of its own. Finally, “Chasse-Neige” proved a canny choice to finish the first half, building as it does to a huge climax.

Born in Tashkent and raised in Israel, Bronfman drinks Prokofiev’s blend of the Romantic and Modern dressed in flashy harmonies like mother’s milk. He savors the sudden shifts in harmony and energizes crescendos as effectively as any pianist, and somehow finds extra depth to the story the music tells. This is a story that unfolds gradually, the composer holding back on the fireworks through two relatively gentle movements before unleashing a storm in the finale. Through it all, Bronfman demonstrated how logically Prokofiev’s shifting harmonic sands could coalesce, emphasizing the sweetness and lyricism while sprinkling the piquant dissonances to keep us awake. The finale, of course, concluded in a blaze of pianistic glory.

Harvey Steiman