It is so very satisfying to attend to a true master at work. And true mastery was definitely on display last night in Carnegie Hall as Yefim Bronfman presented a recital of sonatas by Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Prokofiev.
One could quibble, perhaps, with the stylistic presentation in the Haydn Sonata. The fortepiano has become the instrument of choice for hearing Haydn's keyboard music among early music fans, but it plays well on the big concert grand. I felt that Bronfman pulled his punches a bit in the Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50, scaling down dynamics in the outer movements a bit more than I might like, perhaps in a gesture towards "authenticity." But the technical accomplishment was superb, and the pianist seemed very engaged intellectually, if not quite so much emotionally.
But any such reservations were swept away in the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 5. As the opus number indicates, this is very early Brahms, the work of a 20 year old, and although by then the composer had found his individual voice to a large extent – the rhythmic figures, melodic motifs, and chord progressions sound already like the more familiar Brahms of the later sets of short piano works – the influences of contemporaries and near-contemporaries such as Chopin and Schumann still exert a strong pull, as does Beethoven. And the complex, innovative thinker of those later pieces was not yet fully formed. This longest of Brahms's solo piano pieces (and the last extended multi-movement solo piano piece that he would write) is thus not a fully-finished, individual work. I found myself thinking at times that this piece was a lesser accomplishment compared to those later works, in terms of a concise working out of interesting materials, albeit a major advance on the first two piano sonatas.
Bronfman played it as a major masterpiece, with full intellectual and emotional engagement. What a pleasure it is to sit and observe a master at work. Flawless technique! One has no concerns that anything might go wrong. The undemonstrative, poker-faced pianist reveals surging emotions, high drama, and — especially in the slower, quieter moments — a superb delicacy of touch and rhythmic subtlety. Indeed, it was the quiet, sensitive playing that I found most persuasive, throughout the evening, although surely Bronfman brought the necessary weight and passion to bear on the louder and swifter moments as well.
If the Brahms was mightily impressive, the Prokofiev was overwhelming. The 8th Sonata, Op. 84, is a relative rarity in piano recitals compared to its flashier wartime companion, the 7th. And, it must be admitted, the first movement, marked "Andante dolce — Allegro moderato", is a tougher nut to crack for the listener than its 7th Sonata counterpart. On the other hand, the second movement, a gentle song seemed ripped from the more tender pages of the composer's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet, was breathtaking in its simplicity and harmonic flow. The finale provided the necessary fireworks, without being the overly-aggressive juggernaut that the finale of the 7th can be in the hands of an Argerich or Richter.
What impressed me the most, however, about Bronfman's playing in this sonata, was his ability to suggest an orchestral range of texture and color from the keyboard. In the second movement, I could almost hear the horn chords suggested by the accompaniment to the song, throbbing as they do in the orchestrated ballet, and the rich lower string body was evoked for me by Bronfman's beautiful touch in playing chordal accompaniments in the quieter moments.
Throughout the evening, I was continually reaffirmed in my view that Bronfman is one of the giants of the keyboard today. If further proof were needed, his encores, Chopin's Etudes Op. 10, No. 8 and No. 4, were crowning examples of why this man is at the top of the list for me. An unforgettable evening!