Tchaikovsky Uninhibited, and a Hint of Humor

Yefim Bronfman
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Tchaikovsky struggled to write his Grand Sonata in G in 1878 because he felt uninspired, he wrote, and wasn’t “in the mood for work.” But the pianist Yefim Bronfman clearly had no such inhibitions when he tore through this daunting and infrequently performed piece on Monday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The sonata’s declamatory chords and pianistic flourishes recall Tchaikovsky’s thundering Piano Concerto No. 1, written a few years earlier. The work unfolded organically in Mr. Bronfman’s superhuman hands, its symphonic scale and orchestral textures highlighted with virtuosic flair. While Tchaikovsky’s melodic talents are less pronounced here than in his better-known works, memorable themes surface throughout the sonata.

The program opened with a thoughtful account of Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, whose rapid scales Mr. Bronfman played with crystalline clarity. Next came “XI Humoresken” by the German composer Jörg Widmann, who was inspired by Schumann’s humoresques.

“The humoresque is not intended to have the full comic effect of a joke,” Mr. Widmann writes, but is “a laconic, often deadly serious affair with just a hint of humor and ironic in tone.” Like Schumann’s character pieces “XI Humoresken” consist of atmospheric miniatures that, according to Mr. Widmann, explore “different forms of humor (or even its absence).”

This series begins on a gauzy note with “Children’s Song” and includes “Lively at First,” which has a turbulent bass line; “Chorale,” which opens pianissimo; the romantic parody of “Intermezzo”; and the evocative “Bells.” Mr. Bronfman commissioned the work and gave its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2008. He offered an intelligently wrought interpretation of the intriguing, if not instantly memorable, work, which he has described as “Schumann with wrong notes.”

Schumann with right notes came by way of the popular “Faschingsschwank aus Wien” (“Carnival Scenes From Vienna”), given a gracious performance here.

After the whirlwind drama and crashing chords of the Tchaikovsky sonata, which concluded the evening with a bang, the mood shifted abruptly for the first of three encores: a poetic, introspective rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat (Op. 27, No. 2). Mr. Bronfman then showed off his powerhouse technique in Liszt’s “Paganini” Étude No. 2 in E flat and the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D minor.