Yefim Bronfman's secret? Listen.

Yefim Bronfman
The Oregonian

By David Stabler

Hands down, Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday was one of the year’s musical highlights. We knew it would be, we were prepared for it and we reveled in it when he drove up, unpacked his bags and got to work.

So it’s worth considering what makes Bronfman, born in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, and who has become a piano gladiator around the world, the incredible pianist he is.

He can play very fast, but so can thousands of other pianists. He can play very softly, but so can others. He plays urgently, smartly, rhythmically, instinctively. He can call forth dazzlement and ovations from listeners unknowing of the piano’s ways and means. He does all those things with absolute jurisdiction over the spiritual and intellectual – and of course, physical – elements of music written for his instrument.

So can others.

What’s left? Sound.

I think what sets Bronfman apart is his sound. Sitting utterly still, this large man offers striking clarity, shading and fullness. Revelatory fullness. Touch isn’t as easy to differentiate on the piano as it is on the violin or cello. The piano is a percussive instrument and its music requires endlessly different demands.

But Bronfman achieves true sonority in breathing, speaking tonal lines.

The opening pages of the Second Concerto offer a blur of pianistic chords. They’re similar in gesture to Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” but different in expressive content – Bartok was no neo-classicist. But even with his hands playing closely together in the middle of the keyboard, Bronfman gave his whirling sound an expressive edge.

The solo melodies of the second movement rang clear, particularly in the eerie moments when it was just piano and drums, and the bright attacks in the third created colorful splashes as the music sped along.

Bronfman offered an exquisite version of Robert Schumann’s “Arabesque” as an encore, stepping down the dynamics for subsequent repetitions of the theme, until you had convinced yourself he couldn’t play more softly. And then he did.

Truly, I could listen to him all day.

The orchestra, under music director Carlos Kalmar, accompanied the Bartok with biting support and a creepy sense of mystery in the nocturnal second movement.

The program included the first and last symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn, both neatly and conscientiously played, and “Three Places in New England” by the mavericky composer Charles Ives. Kalmar is something of an Ives fan, I think because his music puts an unusual range of challenges before the players: dexterity with multiple rhythms, juggling without necessarily resolving chaos, tonal nuances, power passages and emotional sensitivity to the difference  between sentiment and sentimentality.

For example, the beautiful third movement, “From the Housatonic at Stockbridge,” originated with the composer’s memory of a Sunday walk with his new wife that turned into what Wilfrid Mellers, in his book “Music in a New Found Land,” calls a “visionary moment.”

“The lovely horn melody…suggests both the chapel singing that Ives heard floating over the water, through the mist, and also the tranquil security of the love between himself and his wife…”

Saturday’s performance brought out absorbing moments in the score without exaggerated emotion -- stillness contrasting with power. The playing’s depth and detail told the story.