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Yefim Bronfman gives brilliant performance of demanding program at Shriver Hall

Yefim Bronfman
The Baltimore Sun

By Time Smith

Like a lot of folks, I tend to think wistfully of past times when musical giants seemed to roam the earth in great numbers -- the singers, instrumentalists and conductors who now have the word "legendary" wrapped around their names. But, you know, we really don't have it so bad today.

Consider the realm of the keyboard. There are some mighty fine pianists on the scene, capable not only of delivering technical fireworks, but of producing experiences rich in musical feeling. One of the best in this regard is Yefim Bronfman, who chose an unusual recital program for his appearance on the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening and played the heck out it.

The pianist didn't just go out in left field to find some less-often played items by famous composers for the sake of novelty; his selections had a logical flow that revealed some subtle, intriguing links between the pieces.

Before getting to the gargantuan G major Sonata by Tchaikovsky, Bronfman offered some Beethoven (32 Variations in C minor) and Schumann ("Faschingsschwank aus Wien") -- Tchaikovsky used both composers as inspirational models for his sonata, and those connections became heightened along the way.

The pianist also placed a sonata by Prokofiev (No. 2 in D minor) on the first half of the program that reflected its own influences from Schumann and, coincidentally, had a little motif in common with the Tchaikovsky sonata -- a hint of the ancient "Dies Irae" chant (in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's, the third of Prokofiev's -- at least to my ears).

It all added up to an eventful evening. Bronfman's brilliant pianism impressed from the start in the Beethoven Variations. There was terrific clarity in his articulation, a considerable palette of tone coloring and nuance in his phrasing. The Schumann score found Bronfman paying equal attention to its explosive energy and soaring lyricism. Although he had the printed music of the Prokofiev sonata in front of him, the pianist sounded perfectly at home; he delivered a particularly dazzling account of the whirlwind Scherzo.

The 30-minute, zillion-note Tchaikovsky sonata occupied the second half of the recital. This work gets very little attention these days (especially on these shores), probably because it has none of the indelible tunes we associate with the composer. Even Tchaikovsky denigrated the piece as "dry," but, then, he was always putting down his own stuff, so that shouldn't be used against it.

Bronfman proceeded to make structural and expressive sense out of the whole thing, getting past any dry spots by keeping phrases richly animated. He even ensured that episodes of bravura-on-steroids communicated more than mere digital action. I would have preferred a gentler, Mendelssohn-style touch in the Scherzo, to provide more tonal contrast with the ensuing final movement, but otherwise Bronfman's playing was as rich in tonal variety as in communicative power. He drew out the considerable strengths of the sonata so imaginatively that he created a riveting four-act drama.