Pianist shows both 'attack' and 'flow'

Yefim Bronfman
Minneapolis Star Tribune

By Larry Fuchsberg

I could have gone home happy Wednesday evening having heard only Robert Schumann's six-minute "Arabesque," the opening piece of pianist Yefim Bronfman's consummate Schubert Club recital at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.

The work can seem slight and uneventful -- a once-charming miniature, now faded. But in Bronfman's hands it shined a light into Schumann's fanciful, poetic inner world -- a place of fragile innocence and deepest poignancy.

The music, at times, grew daringly slow, its filaments stretched but never broken. And when it ended, the experience seemed complete. Nothing else needed saying.

Much else was said, however; Wednesday's audience was regaled with two hours of masterful pianism, including a second helping of Schumann: his "Carnival Jest from Vienna," which the composer (jestingly?) called "a great romantic sonata." Bronfman lavished care on the all-too-brief Romanze.

Between Schumann and Schumann came Jörg Widmann's intriguing "11 Humoresques" -- a late addition to the program, commissioned by Bronfman (who describes it as "Schumann with wrong notes") and premiered in 2008. A tour de force for both composer and performer, its seriousness is masked by flippancy; it's a thing of wry, truncated romantic gestures, not lacking in Schumannesque neurotic touches. In the best self-conscious modernist fashion, it seems to be as much about the piano -- its sonorities, its extremes of register, its inherent romanticism -- as about Schumann himself.

Born in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, Bronfman is often typed as a "Russian" pianist. He is and he isn't. As he demonstrated Wednesday in sonatas by Prokofiev (No. 2) and Tchaikovsky (Op. 37), he has nothing to fear from any fire-breathing virtuoso. But he studied for a decade with the great Leon Fleisher, imbibing a very different tradition -- "flow-oriented" rather than "attack-oriented," to borrow a distinction. This diverse inheritance (which might have undone a lesser talent) may account for his unusual stylistic breadth and versatility.

The Tchaikovsky, which even the composer's partisans are apt to pass over in silence, showed Bronfman at his most resourceful. Played "straight," without the array of colors and rhythmic inflections he brought to the task, this sprawling sonata would be a disaster. Bronfman, a tireless one-man orchestra, made it a gripping opera without words. And his Chopin encore (the D-flat Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2) was as exquisite as the spring night.