Pianist Yefim Bronfman at Perelman

Yefim Bronfman
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

Another pianist might have played the same program and missed the idea altogether. But through his canny sense of color and an unusually sensitive point of contact between finger and key, Yefim Bronfman's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital Friday night at the Perelman Theater doubled as an essay in the piano as orchestra.

He opened by evoking pizzicato, gliding wind legato and a brass chorale in Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor. The Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien was the most idiomatically pianistic work of the program, but even here, five movements formed a story line easily translated into orchestral form. Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Opus 14 was often about the percussion.

And so by the time Bronfman got to Tchaikovsky's Piano Sonata in G major, Opus 37, the playing seemed to blossom into a full-blown orchestration. It helped, too, that this work shares material with the Violin Concerto (the descending, slightly dissonant chords of each of the works' first movement), which was written the same year.

This keen sense of tonal shading is a gift of great rarity, but it is not Bronfman's most striking characteristic. The Russian-Israeli-U.S. pianist, 52, comes across first as total conqueror of his instrument. He is the most preternaturally equipped of pianists, a technical monster. And yet, as he clearly wanted to show in his final encore, a quiet bit of Scarlatti's C minor Sonata, he is also deeply involved with emotion. A weight lifter and a poet.

There was so much to love about this recital (which Bronfman repeats Monday night at Carnegie Hall, substituting Jorg Widmann's XI Humoresken for the Prokofiev) you had to choose most cherished moments from among many. The Prokofiev involved you in a raucous, mad dash to the end. Bronfman used the score and a page-turner here, the only time he did, but you could never have known the piece wasn't already second nature. The ghostly passages of the third movement were as fully exploitive of their dramatic potential as the brawn of the last. Liszt's transcription of the Paganini Etude No. 2 for violin, also an encore, filled out the extreme firepower slot.

But for me, the Beethoven was the most sympathetic of Bronfman's artist statements. Each variation came with a differentiation of character so great, interpretive layers so finely wrought, that the pianist managed to remake its reputation as a much closer cousin to the much-worshipped Diabelli Variations than anyone could have imagined.