Arts & Events

Yefim Bronfman in Recital at Zellerbach

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday February 02, 2019 - 04:38:00 PM

Never having heard Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman perform before I attended his recital at Zellerbach Hall on Friday, February 1, my first impression as he walked onstage was of a stocky, one might say, portly, middle-aged man who, unlike most pianists, proceeded behind the piano rather than in front of it. There seemed something humble and workmanlike about this approach, as if Bronfman were shunning the spotlight and simply going about his business. Then, standing behind the piano bench, he took a perfunctory bow, sat down, and without a pause, began to play.  

The first item on the program was Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, composed in 1890 and revised for publication in 1905. This famous suite is a work of great delicacy and utmost clarity. Here Debussy expresses his fundamental solidarity with the music of French Baroque composers Jean-Philippe Rameau and François Couperin. Its title derives from Baroque dance suites and from the North Italian district around Bergamo.  

The Suite bergamasque comprises four movements, three of which are dance-inspired. The opening Prelude is a flowing, rippling piece that, somewhat surprisingly, ends with a bang. The second piece is a playful, perhaps a touch wistful, Menuet. Next comes the famous Clair de lune, as poetic an evocation of moonlight as music offers, here dutifully rendered by Yefim Bronfman. The fourth and final piece is a romping Passepied. While Bronfman, who was born in Tashkent, Uzbek, USSR, may not have given this Suite bergamasque by Debussy the most Gallic interpretation, leaning as he did slightly on the heavy rather than light side, nevertheless, Debussy’s textures, colors, and harmonies all shone brightly.  

Next on the program was Robert Schumann’s Humoreske in B-flat Major. This work of Schumann’s early maturity unfolds as a cycle of seven episodes, offering widely contrasting moods. The opening is buoyant; the second starts out briskly, then becomes tender. The third offers dramatic repetitions; and the fourth is bouncy and melodic. Yefim Bronfman effectively brought out the changing sonorities of these diverse episodes. Drama then ensues and there occurs a disquieting stop-and-go effect. Then the music turns introspective; and, finally, it closes with a flashy ending. As a work offering a pianist of the caliber of Yefim Bronfman, whose graduate studies were at Juilliard, Marlboro, and the Curtis Institute, many opportunities to show off a mastery of diverse moods and sonorities, Schumann’s Humoreske is a successful, if somewhat academic, tour de force. 

After intermission, Yefim Bronfman, who became an American citizen in 1989, performed one of Franz Schubert’s last three great piano sonatas, the C minor, D. 958. The opening Allegro offers a rousing, tumultuous tribute to Beethoven. Yet there are hints of Romantic Sturm und Drang in this dramatic movement. Things calm down, however, in the second movement, a poignant Adagio. Yet even here, there is drama as the movement’s middle section offers a surprising outburst, performed here with power by Yefim Bronfman. A spirited Menuetto ensues in Allegro time with an extended Trio, all marked by contrasting dynamics and irregular, stop-and-go phrasing. The Finale is a playful romp, full of color and rhythm, effectively performed here by Yefim Bronfman, who strikes me as a pianist who more than makes up for in technical command and workmanlike efficiency what he lacks in personal charisma.  

Because of the stormy weather, I did not stay to hear what encores, if any, Yefim Bronfman chose to play. This was not out of disrespect or lack of interest but simply a matter of driving home as early as possible on a stormy night.