Fort Worth — Single-composer concerts are fairly common: Mostly Mozart and Basically Beethoven, for example. But Plenty of Prokofiev? Not too often, although the Fort Worth Symphony is assaying the piano concerti with Cliburn Gold medal winner Vadym Kholodenko. Another Russian born pianist, Yefim Bronfman, made his reputation playing Prokofiev early in his career and he reprised that specialty on Tuesday night, playing four of Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas at Bass Performance Hall.
His appearance was presented by the Cliburn as part of the Cliburn at the Bass series. That’s interesting in that research has failed to turn up a single piano competition that Bronfman entered. For decades not only entering, but winning, such competitions appear to be the only path to a career. Young pianists today spend years on the so-called “competition circuit,” traveling from country to country, mostly on their own expense. Instead, the unlauded Bronfman simply started with a successful debut in 1975, with Zubin Mehta and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and has been concertizing ever since.
Bronfman is a bear of a man who lumbered out, gave a quick nod to the audience, sat down and attacked the piano. His considerable power comes from his shoulders, arms and hands He doesn’t use much in the way of body movement; although he did rise up off of the bench to get maximum force a couple of times. Much of Prokofiev’s piano music requires aggressive, occasionally brutal, playing, and in these cases, Bronfman unleashed a full frontal, almost terrifying, attack. He also demonstrated an ability to play incredibly softly with an admirable legato. But in these passages, you could still discern the explosively coiled spring inside of Bronfman, ready to burst as soon as he let it loose. On the downside, he has a lead foot on the sustaining pedal, blurring much of the music into a harmonic soup when more clarity was required.
His program started with the Rachmaninoff-influenced first sonata, written when the composer was 18 years old. Bronfman gave it a romantic performance, but more reserved than what he might have lavished on actual Rachmaninoff. The program ended with the complete musical opposite: the seventh, Prokofiev’s most dissonant and ferocious sonata. Here, he pushed the piano to its limits (without ever exceeding them), unleashing torrents of savage sounds. He also played the less frequently performed fifth sonata and the better-known sixth.
Throughout the entire program, Bronfman paid close attention to Prokofiev’s tempi. In fact, his pacing was one of the best aspects of the concert. The finale of the seventh sonata, marked Precipitato, is virtuosic in the extreme. Many pianists take it as fast as they can in order to dazzle with their technical prowess. Taking the movement at a quick, but reasonable tempo, we heard its intricate inner workings and cross rhythms.
Bronfman dazzled all right, but not with his obviously nimble fingers. Instead, he dazzled with his understanding of the music and by creating the effects the composer, not the performer, wanted.