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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Smitten on the Keys

MASTERY OF PROKOFIEV’S PIANO MUSIC requires complete mastery of the piano: the composer wrote for (and possessed) a blistering, ambitious technique, and the required skill usually is demonstrated with later works such as the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas. But pianist Yefim Bronfman reminded us that the same challenges await among the lower numbers by performing Prokofiev’s first four sonatas at Union College in Schenectady last Wednesday. And, in a wonderful programming choice, he slipped a bit of Schumann in there as well.

Yefim Bronfman
This allowed us to hear Prokofiev’s progress. The journey from his first sonata, from 1909 when he was 18, to the second, published three years later, is a trip whereon he discovers the voice that remained recognizably his. And the Schumann pieces reinforced Prokofiev’s essentially romantic nature.

No nonsense when Bronfman begins! He strides to the piano, takes a cursory bow, and is playing the opening work almost before he’s seated, it seems. Prokofiev’s First Sonata is a one-movement work, cut down by the composer from its original three, written while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It immediately asserts the romantic sensibility that never would leave the composer’s voice, but it’s free of the crunch and angularity that very soon would appear. Still, I’m not sure I’d want to meet this piece in a dark alley without warning.

It’s a showpiece in the Rachmaninoff mode, a work intended to display its composer’s virtuosity and to challenge subsequent performers. Bronfman showed his keen sense of the music’s architecture by bringing out the work’s inner voices with easy grace even while keeping up with its relentless cascades of figuration.

By the time we get to the Sonata No. 2, the dynamic extremes are in place, hammered with percussive glee. I suspect that this is less a case of Prokofiev finding his voice than it is a lowering of a mask of pretend respectability. Georgian music critic Givi Ordzhonikidze termed Prokofiev’s use of so many disparate elements in this sonata “polypersonalia,” suggesting also the post-Romantic de-emphasis on sentiment as an affective tool. “In this music,” writes pianist Boris Berman, “one often feels that there are no sustained emotional values to be relied upon.”

But it remains music for an audience; in particular, an audience to be dazzled by the virtuoso composer-performer, which was a Romantic-era specialty. Bronfman, thankfully, indulges in none of the tormented-artist mannerisms that also sprang from that era, nor does he seek to layer unneeded interpretive inflections upon the score. But he is able at one moment of summoning sustained flurries of crisp notes in the Scherzo, his rapid hand-crossings looking like leapfrogging lobsters, at the next of delicately provoking the haunting (and very characteristic) sonorities that finish the sonata’s Andante. And the rapid figurations of the concluding Vivace seemed impossible, yet Bronfman never slackened in momentum, even during the oddly slow, still-pulsing contrast of the movement’s second subject.

Could the stormy Russian composer have considered Schumann a kindred? Prokofiev seems embarrassed at times to be expressing the sentiment that Schumann wears on his sleeve, but there’s sweetness within. In Schumann’s case, it’s right out there in the open in Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Views from Vienna), a relentlessly sunny work of five disparate sections. But Schumann could get crunchy, too, as the finish of the opening Allegro proves. The kinship is complicated.

The Romanze sings its phrases slowly, each ending on an unexpected turn; the Intermezzo puts a busy undercurrent against its slow theme. If Prokofiev allowed himself to be more sonorous in the midst of his more frantic moments, he might have come up with the Finale of this piece, reinforcing the excellent choice of closing the first half of the program with the work.

Prokofiev’s introspective Sonata No. 4 doesn’t surrender its mysteries easily. It gets off to a rumbling start, which proved an excellent underscoring for the many audience members busily unwrapping crinkly wrapped comestibles. Then the voicings get even stranger: By the second movement, the turmoil that continued in the low end of the keyboard sounded higher-voiced than what went on in the treble clef, until all of it traveled higher and higher in a beautiful, skillfully inflected effect. The clouds of the first two movements start to clear by the third, marked Andante tranquillo, and by the concluding Allegro con brio, it’s positively sunny.

Again, an excellent lead-in to what’s otherwise a contrasting work: Schumann’s familiar Arabesque, Op. 18. Again, Bronfman’s no-nonsense approach allowed the playfulness of the opening section to shine through, while he gave himself room to explore the less time-strict contrasting sections.

And then it was back to Prokofiev, and his brief, single-movement Sonata No. 3, subtitled “From Old Notebooks,” reworking themes he dreamed up in his youth and laying them into a sonata-allegro form that boasts eight different tempo markings. It served to sum up all that come before: the percussive, the lyrical, the sardonic, and, above all, the virtuosic. And then the mighty Bronfman, who had poured technique of Olympian impressiveness into this recital, finished with a fleet Chopin etude to which he gave the lightest possible, and most appropriate, touch.

Yefim Bronfman, pianist
Union College Concert Series, Nov. 11, 2015

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