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Haydn, Schumann, Chopin: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 13.3.2011 (HS)

Known for his formidable technique and volcanic power on the piano, Yefim Bronfman seemed to be channeling a different, more intellectual muse in his recital program Sunday night. A packed Davies Symphony Hall audience responded with rapt attention, and he responded by transforming his famous intensity into refinement, deadpan wit and refreshing directness.

That was the perfect approach for a program that began with Haydn's late Piano Sonata No. 46 in C major and ended with Chopin's Twelve Études. In between he had planned to introduce Humoreske, newly written for him by Esa-Pekka Salonen. But the composer had not finished the manuscript, so he subbed in Schumann's Humoreske in B flat major instead.

Aside from a few quick breaks to acknowledge misplaced applause, Bronfman approached the task at hand with his usual lack of pomp. Where many pianists settle themselves in before the keyboard, often staring into space to get in the mood or waiting for the audience to hush, Bronfman simply sits down and starts playing. He also looks a bit rumpled, unlike most concert pianists. As the novelist Philip Roth once wrote of him, with his burly body and lumbering gait, "Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it."

Part of the magic of this evening, therefore, was the deftness of his touch, so much so that the general feeling was more of an intimate soirée than a grand performance. This was intensified by Bronfman's sheer virtuosity, which allowed for extraordinary precision at fleet tempos.

This was especially evident in the Chopin Études. They should sing and communicate a feeling, but they were written as exercises, each one presenting the player with a different, daunting technical challenge. Bronfman met them with élan. He began by corralling the skittering arpeggios of No. 1 (C major) into curling, lapping waves and expressing the rapid chromatic scales of No. 2 (A minor) as scudding clouds over a staccato melody and chords. If the song-like tune of No. 3 came off as a bit lacking in legato, he more than made up for that with a heartbreakingly pure arioso against the meandering accompaniment in No. 6. So it went through the full dozen.

The famous No. 12 in C minor "Revolutionary" began sinuously and expectantly but welled up repeatedly into one climax after another. The music just seemed to expand and move forward inexorably. Maybe it was the fresh images from Japan, but it immediately called to mind the relentless progress through one town after another of those horrifying tsunamis, awe-inspiring in a very real way.

He approached the opening work, the Haydn sonata, with a delicacy his physical frame belies. The music had spring, it had grace, it had enormous wit without a single wink. Bronfman just played it straight and let Haydn's timeless jokes make us grin. This was especially so in the Adagio, with its sense of the ground shifting disquietingly underneath a steady meter. Bronfman always righted the ship just before it tipped over. In the finale, the unexpected harmonies and sudden stops made us giggle, right up to Haydn's Harpo Marx-like flourish at the finish.

Schumann, on the other hand, had no intention of being funny in his Humoreske. It is a strange piece, which shifts moods, harmonies and tempos every minute or so. Bronfman made no attempt to smooth those sudden transitions. Instead, he reveled in the sense of walking through a door into another room, with a totally different atmosphere. It was like a tour of Schumann's feverish brain, climaxing when you least expect it, occasionally fading into a reverie at other points. The improvisational quality-the immediacy of these moments-lent the performance its intimacy.

For encores, Bronfman chose two pieces not heard that often but which fit perfectly after the Chopin set. Schumann's Arabeske, Opus 18, harked back to the Schumann of about the same time frame as the Humoreske but in a much more traditional style. Whole sections could have been models for pages of some of Chopin's music. Liszt's Études d'exécution transcendente d'après Paganini not only were reminiscent of the formidable technical challenges of Chopin's, but they were dedicated to Clara Schumann. Not only did these choices wrap things up intellectually, they gave Bronfman a few more minutes to show off his impeccable skills.

Harvey Steiman

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