Pianist Yefim Bronfman delivers a grand tour of fire and poetry in Prokofiev ‘war sonatas’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Pianist Yefim Bronfman brought his traveling cycle of Prokofiev’s three so-called “war sonatas” to Orchestra Hall on May 1. It was a mesmerizing, virtuosic portrait of the composer in wartime it was.
Though Prokofiev began work on his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas all in the same year, 1939, before the ravages of World War II had yet descended upon Russia, the three works were only completed, respectively in 1940, ’42 and ’44 as hostilities and hardship engulfed the country.
Still, the sonatas represent not so much a sequence of tone paintings of a shattered world as they do states of mind of a keenly attuned composer – one who had, with profound yearning, returned to the bosom of his mother country in the early 1930s after years of wandering in the West.
Bronfman, who began his present tour with the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sonatas in a performance at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich., on April 29, will play them again May 3 at the Library of Congress, May 5 at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia and May 7 at Carnegie Hall.
To say the Russian-Israeli pianist brings an aura of ownership to these technically formidable and emotionally charged works is to frame the case in modest terms indeed. With disarming facility, Bronfman tossed off the fearsome demands of all three of Prokofiev’s spectacular finales, and with no less authority probed the consistently lyrical and ruminative spaces of the sonatas’ slow movements.
Sonata No. 6 in A presents a piquant exuberance that might be described as brittle brio. Bronfman infused its brash, rhythmically driving outer movements with a heady blend of power and brilliance. Here was an immediate demonstration of the seemingly effortless virtuosity that was to stamp the full arc of Bronfman’s engagement with Prokofiev on this revelatory afternoon. And with it came a goodly display of pianistic wit in the second movement’s herky-jerky little march, which harkens back to the famous march from Prokofiev’s opera “The Love for Three Oranges.”
Not the least virtue of Bronfman’s three sonata turns was his clear delineation of structure. He showed Prokofiev to be an authentic classicist, a brash one to be sure, but a classicist withal. That formal light shone nowhere more tellingly than in Bronfman’s luminous account of Sonata No. 7 in B-flat and its progression from the opening movement’s neatly symmetrical, albeit harmonically spiky, arch through a specifically “warm” slow movement to an impulsive finale – rooted in a syncopated three-note figure with a heavy accent on the second note – that brought the house down in a storm of applause. (You can hear Bronfman play that closing movement in the video below.)
The Eighth Sonata, also cast in the key of B-flat, is widely regarded as the finest of the nine works Prokofiev wrote in this form. While the finale of the Eighth again offers the pianist a showcase for sheer technical élan, an opportunity assuredly not lost on Bronfman, the sonata’s greatest rewards lie in the indulgent lyricism of its first two movements. There is a deep strain of Schubert in Prokofiev’s musings here, and Bronfman’s lingering tempos allowed the music its full measure of burnished eloquence.
In that reflective mood, the pianist topped off his cycle of Prokofiev with an encore of Schumann’s Arabesque in C, Op. 18, a dreamy, long-lined reading that provided just the needed feeling of release after the urgency and bravura of an extraordinary recital.
- Upcoming recitals by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin and French pianist David Fray in the Symphony Center Presents piano series: Details at CSO.org
- Bronfman last performed with the Chicago Symphony in 2015, when he played the Brahms Second Piano Concerto: Review at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Complete 2016-17 Symphony Center Presents piano recitals, chamber music concerts and visiting orchestra series: Details at CSO.org