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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Prokofiev and Schumann: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Wigmore Hall, 9th February 2005 (TJH)

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14
Schumann: Humoreske, Op. 20
Schumann: Arabeske in C, Op. 18
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in Bb, Op. 83

One hopes that the £2 million recently spent on the refurbishment of the Wigmore Hall included a sizeable allowance for the reinforcement of its foundations, for they were almost certainly left a little shakier after Yefim Bronfman’s ferocious account of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata on Wednesday. Bronfman is one of today’s foremost Prokofiev interpreters and his playing had a fearsome edge to it that left the hall trembling with its sheer, terrifying power. It came as the culmination of an outstanding recital in which Bronfman once again proved himself to be amongst the most compelling of today’s pianists.

The evening opened with another Prokofiev sonata, the Second. Though written when the composer was just 21, it is nonetheless a dramatic and varied work that in its best moments presages the later “War Sonata” triptych, of which the Seventh Sonata is the centrepiece. Bronfman’s account of the earlier piece was rich with colour, conjuring a full, almost orchestral sound from his instrument whilst bringing out the subtlest of details. Though he emigrated from the Soviet Union in his teens, Bronfman’s style still owes much to the great Russian piano tradition, and his rich bass tones and judicious use of the sustain pedal were perfectly suited to the dark and often mysterious world of Prokofiev’s piano music. This was most evident at the end of the third movement Andante, where the music seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the very bowels of the piano before re-emerging vividly in the blazing final Vivace. Throughout, Bronfman showed an impressive control of texture, bringing forth previously unsuspected inner melodies in passages which, on their surface, consisted of immense, reverberating chords.

The other composer on the programme was Robert Schumann, and if Bronfman’s muscular style felt a little less idiomatic in such repertoire, his playing was no less compelling. The Humoreske Op. 20 took up the rest of the first half, and it was a skilfully controlled performance even if one might have liked a lighter, silkier tone in some passages. Bronfman’s musicality shone through, however, in the way he brought a sense of architecture to this most unusually structured piece. The opening Einfach, a sort of prelude, belonged almost to the same world as the Prokofiev that immediately preceded it – Bronfman making the most of its accented appoggiaturas and unexpected harmonies – while the Sehr rasch und leicht movement which followed was brimming over with character. Even so simple an idea as a repeated scalar motif yielded unexpected delights. At times it seemed as if Bronfman’s meaty playing might overwhelm the delicacy of Schumann’s writing, but then he would conjure up a magical moment, a half-pedalled phrase dripping with atmosphere – the beautiful coda to the third movement being a prime example – and all was instantly forgiven. The sprawling last movement featured some spectacular passagework and this was delivered with bell-like clarity, Bronfman once more bringing forth the piano’s inner orchestra for the coda.

More Schumann followed after the interval, this time the smaller-scale Arabeske Op. 18. Bronfman was perhaps least convincing here, never quite delivering the prettiness of tone the piece cries out for, but he did serve up some exquisite moments. Once again, his sense of architecture shone through and he made a virtue of the piece’s repetitive form, each return of the first subject more poignant than the last.

After the spine-tingling close, he launched into Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata with only the briefest acknowledgement of applause. His pace was furious from the start, the machine-like 6/8 rhythms of the opening Allegro inquieto taking on a dangerous, even threatening character. He rapidly arrived at the slower andantino episode and once more coaxed dark, musty tones from the depths of the piano, creating an oasis-like point of repose. But the machine was cranked back into life in the development, and this time those quick-fire quavers reached a brutal, visceral climax that troubled everything that followed. Even the wistful nostalgia of the second movement seemed haunted by memories of violence, and the bell-like tolling at that movement’s heart sounded nothing less than apocalyptic. The toccata-like Precipitato which brought the sonata to its close was exhilarating, with Bronfman hammering out its rapid 7/8 rhythms with a furious intensity, dispensing with any leftover sentiment once and for all.

The audience showed their appreciation with a roar of approval, but there was no need to beg for an encore: Bronfman - residual energy still coursing through his fingers - gave three of them rather impetuously as if impatient to get that frenzied excitement out of his system. No one, needless to say, was complaining.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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