The Importance of Second Chances

Yefim Bronfman
The Wall Street Journal

By David Mermelstein

Yefim Bronfman is well known as a fearless pianist for whom no score is too demanding. But a more poetic touch has lately complemented his brawny prowess. The shift is all the more noteworthy given Mr. Bronfman's hulking physique, for what you see is not always what you get with this gifted artist. In recent seasons, Brahms—whose music requires formidable technique and soulful expression—has been a near fixation, with the composer's two piano concertos and Sonata No. 3 appearing regularly on the pianist's programs. 

Last week, Mr. Bronfman joined the Emerson String Quartet at New York's Carnegie Hall for an all-Brahms program, and this week he partners with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in four performances of the composer's Piano Concerto No. 1. Then, on Jan. 30, he returns to a favorite venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, giving a solo recital featuring Brahms's Third Sonata, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8, Schumann's "Arabeske" and the premiere of a new work by Esa-Pekka Salonen titled "Sisar." (He repeats the program at Emory University in Atlanta on Feb. 2.)

"Brahms is difficult to understand and to play," Mr. Bronfman, age 54, said with characteristic modesty last month, the morning after performing the Third Sonata and other works at a private event in this affluent beach community. "Brahms writes very clumsily for the piano, which is surprising because he was himself a pianist."

Mr. Bronfman—who was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union, and lived in Israel before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1989—first came to appreciate Brahms through his chamber music, which the pianist calls "the heart and soul" of the composer's legacy. "I entered his world though the violin sonatas, the horn trio, the quartets, the quintet," he said. "His music is in a way very abstract."

He cites the five-movement Third Sonata, written when Brahms was only 20, which can be performed with youthful vigor or in a more pensive mode, according to Mr. Bronfman. "The third movement is like drunken music," he said, "but one can play it very slowly, like Claudio Arrau did. Somehow, Brahms was always mature in his writing, even when he was young."

Having made the Piano Concerto No. 2 a virtual calling card by performing it more than two-dozen times last year, Mr. Bronfman returns to the piece this spring. "When you play the Second Concerto, the pianistic challenges are enormous," he said. "I think it's the most difficult concerto ever written. I can say for sure you cannot fake it; you've got to be honest. And it's very hard to do what's written. It requires a lot of loud playing—at a symphonic level. You know, it's not only Rachmaninoff that asks you to play loud. The first two movements are devilishly written dynamically, and the same is true in the First Concerto."

The pianist learned the First Concerto as an adolescent, but his esteem for it has deepened considerably over the years. "I think the second movement is in a way a religious experience," he said. "The first movement is challenging, not only to keep the line but also some very difficult octaves. It should never sound labored; it should sound like a sunrise. How Brahms is able to depict nature in the horn calls, that's quite unique, I think. It's genius what he developed with that."

The concerto's opening is notable because the piano enters almost imperceptibly. "It comes in piano," Mr. Bronfman said, using the Italian word for softly, "after a huge, maybe the grandest, of orchestral introductions—like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. And one expects the piano to enter that way, too, but it doesn't. Then it grows and evolves and becomes something very special, and it makes up for the missing grandeur in the development section. It's lyrical and singing and quite a simple reaction to all that orchestral drama."

Though Mr. Bronfman speaks eloquently about the scores he plays, he prefers not to describe them. "I don't like to talk about music that is that great, because whatever you say doesn't do it justice," he said. "It's hard to play, I know that much. And you're at the mercy of the instrument. You have to have good sound—a big sound—without feeling that it's forced. That's maybe the biggest difference between playing Brahms and Rachmaninoff."

Mr. Bronfman appears more comfortable discussing how he approaches his craft generally. "It's important to have a second or third look," he said regarding scores he had performed previously. "Hopefully, you have a chance to do that. I picked up Prokofiev's Eighth Sonata last year after not playing it for 20 years, and I see so much that I had not seen before. It's like rereading a novel. When you're 20, you can go through pages of things without really knowing what the author is trying to say. But then you go back, and suddenly you see the points. There's a lot in this music that I've not seen before. And now I think I have a better grasp of it. Everything I play is different every time, and that's a good thing."

Furrowing his brow as he becomes more reflective, the pianist suggests that growing older plays an inevitable part, too. "After 40, you start thinking that you are mortal, after all," he said. "And with that in mind, one changes one's approach to music. As you mature, you realize that this music has so much more dimension to it than you've ever seen before. It's a lesson to me to strive for other dimensions. I know it's there. So I try to grow and reach out for it. For me, it's always my goal."