Yefim Bronfman plays Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas at Carnegie Hall: Program I
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
Nov 13, 2015
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 1
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29
Yefim Bronfman is one of the names that comes up when a pianist asks “What are the highly regarded recordings of Prokofiev’s piano works?” Embarrassingly, I had not visited those recordings, but was lucky enough to witness his performance of the composer’s piano sonatas at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on November 13. This program included the first half of Prokofiev’s contribution to the form, with the other half to be performed at Carnegie on separate occasions next year. On March 9th you might return to Zankel Hall to hear Bronfman perform more works by Prokofiev; two more piano sonatas, as well as two violin sonatas alongside Guy Braunstein. And on May 7th you can hear Bronfman perform the remaining “War Sonatas” at Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium.
Certainly a great way to open November 13th’s program was Prokofiev’s first Sonata. It’s clear that Bronfman programmed this concert chronologically, doing the first half of the sonatas in numerical order. Nevertheless, this order works to the advantage of the program nicely, as the first sonata is a crowd-pleaser for lovers of both conventional and modern styles alike. It has the essence of Romanticism, being an early Prokofiev work, first written at the age of 16 (albeit revised a couple years later). It exhibits the passion of a young composer who is assimilating the language of the great masters before him, while simultaneously establishing himself as a formidable artist of the 20th century. The writing in this piece sounds like a work of Liszt, but as if Liszt had written it exclusively in an intoxicated state. The piece is relatively short, and is an example of a rare, one-movement sonata (likely another nod to Liszt). I have not researched what changes were made in 1909 to the original 1907 draft, but I would bet it was even more conventional before being revised. I had always imagined that two years after originally writing this piece, Prokofiev realized his compositional identity, and then went back to this work to inject his newly found “grotesque” aesthetic.
When Bronfman entered, the applause had barely died down before he launched into the exciting opening chords of the First Sonata. Bronfman is a stout man, broad in stature, and wasted no time in establishing his domination over the piano. Like a lion tamer, he made sure the black beast would succumb to his every whim. Before I knew it, the introduction had blown by us, and Bronfman was playing the first theme. It was at this point that I had an uncomfortable realization: the experience of hearing a piano recital in this hall left much to be desired. I doubt that the architecture of the hall was designed to project the sound of a solo piano to the far ends of the audience; let alone to row L, where I was seated. The piano sounded as if it were a mile away, and its clarity was a bit muddled by unmitigated reverberation. Granted, the sound reflections were not cathedral-like, but it seemed excessive in the context of a solo piano recital. I imagined that this room would be more sonically accommodating to larger ensembles, or even amplified instruments. Nevertheless, for the sake of enjoying the concert, I had no choice but to focus intensely; and found myself leaning forward in a futile attempt to detect the subtleties of Bronfman’s remarkable performance. Despite the circumstances, with considerable focus I was able to become engaged in Bronfman’s playing.
There was nothing unorthodox about his interpretation of Prokofiev’s First Sonata, as his playing reflected all the elegance and bravado that the composer had intended for this piece. Seemingly, with ease did the performer navigate this beastly yet delicate work, highlighting all the moments that made it such an eccentric composition. The palate of color was wide in range, which of course, is always a virtue for a musician. However, I must confess that the extreme jumps in dynamics, in conjunction with the less than desirable acoustics, would sometimes result in somewhat unintentionally comical moments. I wondered if I was the only audience member who thought that when the subito pianos occurred in this piece, Bronfman seemed he was briefly frozen in a memory slip! This was not the case, of course, and the revelation of the subito piano made itself evident only half a second later. The events that led me to this momentary false belief were the very quiet notes of a subito piano being masked by the reverberation of the just-played loud notes. The effect was corroborated visually by seeing Bronfman’s exaggerated movements turn abruptly to movements that were extremely confined and still, almost a locked stillness. In writing this, it now occurs to me that the sensation of believing you have witnessed a pianist suffer memory slip, and the composer’s originally intended emotional effect of a subito piano might possibly be very similar in nature! Regardless, It was quite enjoyable to hear this piece played so very well.
After the first, we naturally proceeded to the Second Sonata. Here is where we begin to see the more iconic Prokofiev style of writing. This Second Sonata is chock full of all the eerie, angular character that make the composer so unique and charming. Bronfman’s performance of the first movement was true to these virtues. It traversed all the ranges of emotion that this piece intends: from the restlessly dramatic first theme, to the elegantly morose second theme. The transitional material that connects these themes was portrayed with urgency and clarity. The second movement, a scherzo, was a bit more reserved in tempo from what I’ve heard before, but still retained its inherent intensity. The slow third movement was so utterly morbid and devastating, that I found myself at the edge of my seat while listening to it. Bronfman concluded the piece with the tonally contrasting fourth movement, which, under the hands of Bronfman, was playful and obnoxious as ever, concluding the sonata with a dazzling demonstration of virtuosity.
Sonata number 3 was then played to cap off the first half of the program, and once again we have another great crowd-pleaser. It is also a one-movement work, filled with excitement. Like the first sonata, it’s somewhat short (for classical music short means 8-10 minutes), as well as “loud and fast” (to appease our primal urges). The abundant loud and fast passages are contrasted by brief digressions to a lullaby-esque second theme and its offspring. When those dream-like passages end, it’s always a rude awakening to the stark reality of Prokofiev’s abrasive compositional style. Bronfman’s performance of this piece dazzled! With a breathtakingly climactic conclusion, complete with flourishing movements following the final chords, he leaves the audience hungry for more.
After the intermission, Bronfman concluded the evening’s program with Sonata no. 4, a piece that, while more challenging to the listener, represents a fitting apex in the musical depth of the program. The piece is dark and introverted, and given the horrific events that had transpired in Paris only hours before the concert, was tonally in alignment with our thoughts. Dedicated to a friend of the composer that had committed suicide before the piece was written; the piece mourns his loss, while exploring the fragility of our existence. In the first movement, Bronfman takes his time in playing the hauntingly dramatic first theme. The whimsical, yet bitter transitional material was played restlessly, leading us to a brooding and wicked second theme. Again, Bronfman’s playing faultlessly invokes the seriousness of the material, plowing through it while relentlessly generating intrigue. The second movement takes us further down, revealing in retrospect that, despite its darkness, the first was only one of a multi-layered journey into the inferno. If our mortality was not in focus before, it certainly is here, where there is an ever present inexorable march of death. This is where Bronfman has a true opportunity to shine, not by igniting virtuosic fireworks, but by musically communicating profound emotion. This second movement of the fourth sonata was by far my favorite performance of the evening. Once the parade of fallen angels march away into the distance, we are left with the final movement of this piece, which in true Prokofiev form, is once again a 180-degree angle turn. Suddenly we are launched into a bombastic, finale in the manner of the classical era. If there were any doubts of Bronfman’s technical ability, they were surely buried after what he played in the conclusion of this sonata.
Needless to say, an all-Prokofiev program is not for the faint of heart. While not nearly as esoteric as other, more modern composers, I would still imagine this music to be an acquired taste. Thusly, I would consider it a challenging program to the common listener. Nevertheless, in New York City I am in good company, as my fellow refined attendees seemed to find it a thoroughly enjoyable program. My feelings were mutual, and our applause compelled Bronfman to grant us two encores: the Chopin etude in F Major Op. 10, no 8; and Schumann’s Romanze from Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26. Despite my disagreement with the hall’s sound, and a somewhat brief program, I walked away feeling thoroughly satisfied, and had much to contemplate on the subway ride home.