Yefim Bronfman Review-The War Sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev

On Sunday, April 29, 2016, the Symphony Center Presents PowerShares QQQ Piano series featured Yefim Bronfman, a Russian born Israeli-American pianist, performing the three “War Sonatas” of Sergei Prokofiev, an artist whose work Bronfman has toured the world presenting.  The pieces and the pianist were well-matched; the technical superiority of Bronfman’s skills- the sheer strength of the demonstration- was in accord with the drama of Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Sonata no. 7 in B-flat Major, and Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, Opus 82, 83, and 84, respectively.

The performances rendered demonstrated an all-encompassing knowledge of the composer, of the nuances of each piece, of the fingering, naturally, and seemingly of the intent and passions driving each piece. Sometimes the score called for both hands at far left on the keyboard, gracefully, delicately and with astonishing nimble speed on the keys. At other times, his hands were separated completely to either side of the keyboard, reaching for the notes, the powerful torso conspicuously erect. After the completion of Sonatas 7 and 8, he seemed to actually hurl himself from the instrument and bench, not simply to cease playing. The action in each case fit the ending.

The best depiction of Bronfman’s physicality and prowess surely must be that published in “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth. The speaker has been to a rehearsal of Bronfman’s at Tanglewood, and describes him thus, at pages 209-210:

“Then Bronfman appears…Mr. Fortissimo. Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring…I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this…When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with it’s hands in the air.”

Yefim Bronfman at the piano: photo courtesy of Frank Stewart

All three piano sonatas contain slow movements that require sensitivity of phrasing, multi-textured layers, and in the 7th and especially the 8th, a denouement or finale very suggestive of battle’s end. However, they are by no means substantively similar. Piano Sonata No. 6, (1940), has been described as having a tonally unstable first movement, filled with dissonance, introducing the feeling of uncertainty that permeates the work. The second movement contains a march-like segment, is more melodic, and even uplifting. The third movement has a dreamy romantic expression. Finally, the fourth movement, the vivacious rondo, recalls us to the first, ending with a feeling of nostalgia and apprehension.

Piano Sonata No. 7, (1942), sometimes referred to as “The Stalingrad”, was the recipient of the Stalin prize. This dramatic piece, in three movements, begins with a nervous-seeming and almost harsh loud clustering of chords. It becomes thoughtful and violent in turns. The second and much slower section has been described as “seeping with sentimental emotion”. There follows a buildup to the sound of tolling bells before a retreat to the opening voice. Finally, the Precipitato, exciting and daring, brings the piece to an angry cascade of octaves.

Piano Sonata No. 8, (1944), begins with a wandering theme that soon brings to mind the dissonant opening of No.6. The whole movement is permeated by what sounds like motor-driven rhythm. The second movement, andante sognando, has been described as  incorporating “strong elements of atonality into a piece that is highly melodically driven”. With the third movement, vivace, containing numerous themes,there  is an ultimate recapitulation of  melody, and a buildup to the grand finale.

Yefim Bronfman; photo courtesy of Dario Acosta

When the sonatas were completed, Bronfman was treated to a standing ovation and insistent clapping, demanding an encore. He appeared to ultimately and most genially succumb, took to the bench and performed a beautiful piece, completely different in tone and feeling than the Prokofiev. This was Robert Schumann’s "Arabeske "in C major, Op. 18, (1839), written when the composer was just 29 years old. An arabesque is a ballet term, describing a posture in which the body is supported on one leg, the other leg extended backward in horizontal fashion. It’s also an ornamental design consisting of flowing lines which are intertwined. However, it’s been suggested that in this piece, the title is a metaphor for a “fluid organic system of fragments that transcends artificial classical forms”. The piece begins with a rondo, is moody, at turns lyrical, pensive, and poignant. It was a gentle ending to a very intense concert.

To experience the great range of musical performances of the Chicago Symphony and it’s attendant series and special concerts, go to www.cso.org

 

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