Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Yefim Bronfman

March 21, University of Richmond

The virtuoso pianist was largely a creation of the 19th century; and for most of the 20th, pianists secured their reputations as virtuosos by mastering the romantic repertory. Yefim Bronfman, the Israeli-born American pianist, recalled that tradition – and its limitations – in a recital at the University of Richmond. Bronfman devoted most of his program to Schumann and Chopin, whose 200th anniversaries were celebrated last year, with a brief nod to this year's bicentennial birthday boy, Franz Liszt, in the second of two encores.

His treatments of Schumann's "Humoreske," Chopin's 12 études, Op. 10, and encore performances of Schumann's Arabesque and Liszt's arrangement of an étude by Paganini reflected a thorough immersion in the stylistic and spiritual world of romantic pianism.

Bronfman traced the long expressive arc of the Schumann, masterfully balancing its lyricism and dramatic rhetoric, and placed each of the Chopin études in harmonic, expressive and technical context with the others.

The pianist's formidable technique was evident throughout, but never an end in itself, even in the most florid and expressively uninhibited music. The moody lyricism of Chopin's Étude No. 9 in F minor, for example, was no less impressive than the grand portent of the "Revolutionary" Étude No. 12 in C minor.

Bronfman's undemonstrative, even stolid, onstage presence consistently directed the listener’s attention to what he was playing, not how he played it.

The program's opening selection, Haydn's "English" Sonata in C major (Hob. XVI/50), comes from a different sound world. Although written (circa 1794) for the most tonally advanced of the pre-modern pianos, it is by no stretch grand-piano music; and it offers rather little to pianists who thrive on romantic passions. Bronfman gave the piece a playful reading but one that played with a poker face, understating its humor and blunting its surprises.