Bronfman Brings Precision and Elegance to Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Schumann, Schubert: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA. 1.2.2019. (HS)

Yefim Bronfman (c) Dario Acosta
Yefim Bronfman (c) Dario Acosta

DebussySuite Bergamasque
SchumannHumoreske in B-flat major
Schubert — Sonata in C minor D958

Known for his winning combination of technical mastery and refined interpretations of everything from classics to cutting-edge contemporary composers, Yefim Bronfman settled easily into a recital that explored a range of easily ingratiating music. Presented by Cal Performances, the concert Friday evening stepped back in time from Debussy to Schumann to Schubert.

The meatiest piece to sink one’s teeth into was Schubert’s late Sonata in C minor, which occupied the second half of the program. Thanks to Beethoven, C minor sonatas are associated with titanic passion. From 1828, Schubert’s was written in the final months before the composer died, and has only a few stretches that whip up an emotional storm. Instead, it calls upon the soloist to paint supple and shapely phrases, colorful harmonies and rich sonorities.

Bronfman gave the opening measures urgency without stridency, draping cascades of scales around the rhythmic staccatos, then segueing smoothly into a second theme’s sustained chords of a hymn. Rather than emphasizing the push-pull between C minor and A-flat major, he created a sense of ‘which way shall we go?’

The second movement’s Adagio flowed gracefully, and the more rhythmic contrasting middle section felt more like a thoughtful digression than a sudden change. The minuet danced with simplicity, letting Schubert’s subtle rhythmic contrasts speak for themselves instead of forcing the issue. All this restraint made the finale — with its insistent triplets so reminiscent of the composer’s epic song ‘Der Erlkönig’ — into a long sprint that showed no signs of strain despite its immense technical demands

Bronfman’s lyrical approach followed logically from the first half, which emphasized color and personality over deep thoughts.

Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, his homage to Couperin and Rameau published in 1905, pays its respects to the French flavor of these Baroque-era Gallic composers without imitating them literally. Bronfman relished Debussy’s harmonies (the foundation of so many of the chords associated with cool jazz a half-century later), especially in the opening Prélude and gentle Menuet, and let the dancelike rhythms bounce deftly. He spun out the famous ‘Clair de Lune’ with an underlying sense of urgency — a bit faster than one usually hears, and with less rubato — but so delicately that it simply wafted to the ears on a gentle breeze.

Although Schumann’s Humoreske in B-flat major is all about contrasts between the impetuous and dreamy, Bronfman seemed intent on showing how both can coexist as two sides of the same personality. The shifting rhythms of the opening movement, ‘Einfach,’ retained a certain grace when they often can come off as stumbles. The increasingly complexity of the seven movements grew organically — all about tonal color and pianistic flourishes directed at painting a picture.

Two encores underscored just how much we might benefit from hearing this pianist play Chopin more often. Bronfman seldom programs this composer much any more, though he often offers a taste or two for transcendent encores. Satin-smooth, softly caressed sixteenth-notes wrapped a warm cloud around the opening of the Étude Op.10 No.3, inducing sighs with the gentle ardor of the melody. After his bows for that, there was a moment of hesitation before he sat down to launch into a diamond-hard, gleaming traversal of the Étude Op.10 No.12 ‘Revolutionary,’ which  built in waves to a big climax. It was brilliant without a hint of showing off.

Harvey Steiman

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