Yefim Bronfman has quietly become my favorite pianist to hear in performance. Unassuming, devoid of any pretense, affectation or mannerisms, he obviously he lacks the sex appeal of Yuja Wang and the mysterious allure of Martha Argerich, but in the past few years I've seen him give a number of staggeringly good, straightforward performances and last week at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall he did it again. He's all guts and no bullshit.
He strode out onto the ridiculously dim stage, quickly nodded to the crowd (which would have been better accommodated in the smaller, acoustically friendlier Hertz Hall), sat down on the bench and immediately put his fingers to the keys, not wasting a moment, tearing into the third Brahms sonata in F minor, a five-movement work with bridges between the Romantic and Classical styles. Brahms had nothing more to say in the form after this, and Bronfman gave a thunderous account as if to explain why. The quieter moments of the Intermezzo could come across more delicately in the hands of another, but I wouldn't want to sacrifice the force and heart of what Bronfman gave to the whole, which he performed with an almost angry urgency, though without ever sounding rushed.
Liszt seems to be on the mind of many pianists this year due to the approaching bicentennial of his birth, as he keeps popping up on tremendously divergent programs. In years past I'd grown tired of Liszt's flash and almost never listen to him anymore, but lately based on what I've heard performed in the past few months I owe the composer a reconsideration. Bronfman performed three selections from the almost unplayable (it was later revised to accommodate those without Liszt's singular talents) Twelve Transcendental Etudes: Mazeppa, Harmonies du Soir: Andantino, and Chasse-Neige:Adante con moto. Perhaps Liszt is best experienced live, and suffers under the bombast present in recordings, but these three pieces were incredible. Bronfman's hands looked like two huge white tarantulas on crack flying over the keyboard, giving these ridiculously difficult works a complete throttling. He simply wrestled them to the ground. Yes, he broke a sweat doing it, pausing between each one to wipe his brow, but in truth he almost made it look easy. Of course they weren't.
I thought he deserved a standing ovation for these alone, though the audience was content to give him hearty applause and cheers while remaining seated. It was such a knock-out I couldn't imagine how he was going to top it and felt a disappointment was imminent after the intermission.
None came. Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.8 in B-flat minor was mesmerizing. Again tearing into it as soon as he sat down, Bronfman once again displayed his unique ability, an almost chameleon-like quality, to take disparate works and make them his own as if they just bow to his will. Each melody of the first movement spun out with beautiful grace, and the slow intricacies of the second found quiet passages which eluded Bronfman during the Brahms, only to be brought up against agitating quirks. He brought it home in the final movement, which hearkens back to themes from the first, giving the entire work a carefully articulated structure.
For this he received the well-deserved, overdue standing ovation, which was rewarded by an encore of two Chopin etudes.
Bronfman is currently in the midst of a worldwide tour combining recitals and performances with the world's leading orchestras. Check his website for cities and dates. Update 10/21: Scrap that. I just found out last night that Fima broke his finger at the conclusion of the Prokofiev. And he still performed the Chopin etudes for an encore!
Wishing you a complete and speedy recovery Fima!
The concert was presented by Cal Performances.