Pianist Yefim Bronfman's Washington Performing Arts recital on Tuesday night at the UDC Theater was surprisingly disappointing. The promising program, dedicated to the memory of Isaac Stern, featured works by Bartok, Schumann, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Bronfman is a personal favorite of mine, but on the whole I found his playing on this particular evening often inelegant and largely devoid of interpretative thought. Each piece was played with nearly equal force, and little of it felt illuminating.
In some quarters Bronfman has a reputation for being a heavy-handed musician. Having seen him numerous times over the years, that's a view with which I've never agreed -- I've always appreciated his ability to thunder through some passages with often astonishing force and clarity only to turn on a single note toward more nuanced and quiet playing. Last night that ability was largely absent, though a hint of it peeked out during the encore of Schumann's Arabeske.
The first half included Bartók's four-movement Suite for Piano, Op. 14 and Schumann's Humoreske in B-flat Major. The Bartók suite is a grouping of three fast movements followed by a slow one. Here, a few notes cut off too early, and others clumsily played, seemed like a distraction, not a harbinger, but proved to be the latter when Bronfman played the Schumann, a frequently rollicking piece which falls right in his sweet spot with its transitions from loud propulsive passages alternating with slowly paced sections that aren't necessarily ill-served by being attacked, but those slower, gentler moments seemed to be passages for Bronfman to play through rather than explore, despite Bronfman's sense of rhythm staying consistently on the mark throughout. Debussy's "Suite bergamasque," which opened the recital's second half, fared best, with its especially well-paced and considered "Clair de lune" section, though the last movement was largely devoid of anything that could be described as elegant. Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka followed, with its more forceful moments coming across as bombastic, though here again, like in the Schumann, Bronfman's command of rhythm created some fireworks.