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Concert Review/ Yefim Bronfman

img  Tobias

Yefim Bronfman, Piano
Beethoven: 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor, WoO 80
Widmann: XI Humoresken (Canadian Première)
Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
Tchaikovsky: Piano Sonata in G Major, Op.37 “Grande”

   As the 46th performance in its inaugural 2009-2010 season, the Koerner Hall music series has steadily attracted a flock of devoted supporters – from all ages and background. Over-hearing a new concert-goer exclaimed “I am definitely coming back again,” a conversation recently with two keen music lovers shared in their unanimous praises of this Hall as redefining a new concert-listening experience. Such growing accolades on the Koerner Hall have in large aided to reposition Toronto’s attractiveness on the classical music map. Affordability has been a major plus, particularly for the young professional and the retired communities. More importantly, the convenience of hearing top names from the music profession in an intimate setting of 1137 seats without the need to travel abroad has been a major asset. Artists like the Emerson Quartet, James Ehnes, András Schiff have sold to near full-house attendances. Forthcoming recitals with Louis Lortie, Christian Tetzlaff, Yuja Wang, and Gerald Finley promise to be equal sensations in every account. 

  Last visiting Toronto in March 2007 in a piano recital at the MTNA conference, Yefim Bronfman (“Fima”) makes his appearance tonight in the works of Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, plus a work by Jörg Widmann that received its Canadian première. Noted for his virtuosic technique and exceptional acuity in the delivery of pianistic colors, Fima is as exciting an artist to visualize on stage as it is to hear his dashing fingers over the ivory keys. With no time wasted, Fima plunged straight into Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme like a sequel to an unfinished conversation. Disguised as variations on a ‘Theme,’ the work is in fact a Chaconne that is modelled on the harmonic material established in the opening eight measures. C Minor is a key Beethoven associated with powerful emotional turbulence, and as a work written during his middle period, the 32 Variations share in similar scope and expanse as his Coriolan Overture (1807), the Choral Fantasy Op. 80 (1808) and not the very least, the almighty Fifth Symphony (1808). Fima introduced the thematic material with outright intensity in the air, growing in size and magnitude as each variation unfolded. Inner-voicing dominated several of the variations, particularly in the 17th variation, in which Fima attempted to extract the various emotional colours off the instrument. By this juncture in the piece, it became apparent that the instrument was somewhat muffled in its treble register, later to be confirmed by others in the Hall. Fima’s use on the sustained pedal did not seem to reverse the symptoms; this aside, he carried the piece to its blazing climax in the final variation. It transitioned into a series of fortissimo towering chords interwoven by the two hands. Fima then tastefully brought the work to an ending with two light-weighted chords, which carried in them a weight of silence.

   Premièred by Fima in Carnegie Hall on May 4th 2008, German composer Jörg Widmann wrote eleven character pieces which he entitled Humoresken. Fima described the collection with a trace to Robert Schumann, comically remarking that “it’s like Schumann with wrong notes.” The intensity and intonation defining the spirit of Schumann were the focal points of this twenty-minute work. In the original program, Widmann laid the background with the following excerpt: “the different forms of humour (or even its absence) find their various expressions in a great variety of musical forms, from miniatures to fully developed, complex pieces.” Humoresken includes the following characteristic pieces: Kinderlied (Children’s Song); Fast zu Ernst (Almost too Serious); Anfangs lebhaft (Lively at First); Waldszenen  (Forest Scene); Choral (Chorale); Warum? (Why); Intermezzo; Zerrinnendes Bild (Streaming Image); Glocken (Bells); Lied im Traume (Song while Dreamng); Mit Humor und Feinsinn (With humour and subtlety). Indigenous to each of these pieces is the rich variety of sounds and coverage into the broad ranges of the piano. Reading off the score, Fima signalled his audience to focus into listening rather than visual display. His ability to probe into the different facets of a childlike imagery started off in the first piece, transgressing into the layers of tones underpinning a secular setting in the fifth piece. Fima then recreated the bell-like sonorities with care in articulation off his left-hand in the ninth piece, which was a highlight within the set. Each of these pieces is a dichotomy of musical and technical challenges. The challenges for effectiveness delivery underscore the need of a complete musician, and in Fima, here was a consummate artist who embodied the art of a master pianist. 

  Fima took the next piece under his wings in Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26. In the first movement Allegro, the pianist combined elements of zest and jolly by experimenting innovative rhythmic patterns and interchanging dialogues between his hands to project melodic lines. The combination of these elements underscored the very fine subtleties, as each motivic statement germinated into the next. This created both the feelings of tension and relief much like a story being unfolded. It was a pity, however, that certain individuals among the audience tonight felt eager to express themselves by clapping disruptively before the music even faded. The Romanze was a moment of tranquillity and inner-reflection. Ingenious was Schumann’s writing here, Fima was creative to make use of this material by opening each phrase like a question thrown at the audience, only to be resolved moments later by an appropriate musical answer (that made sense). The Scherzino opened with a festive reminiscence to the Allegro; a slight reinforcement on the dotted patterns might have driven the music with greater intensity, and would have provided more breathing room from phrase to phrase rather than feeling the music was being rushed. There were certainly clear signs of Brahmsian influence with the next Intermezzo, and Fima’s close association with the two Brahms Concerti came in reference here. His attempts to recreate layers of shading on the piano were evident, and the music ended with a near melting pianissimo. However, that muffled sound from the piano remained a bother to some, and this seriously offset the efforts Fima attempted on stage. Our pianist took the Finale in a whirlwind with his effortless arpeggios, ending the set in a cyclic manner of festive atmosphere.

    With the piano tuned, one sole piece occupied the remainder second half following intermission. The author speculates that this piece is relatively new in Fima’s repertory, perhaps incorporated into his recital programs at around the same time when Fima ventured into taking the Tchaikovsky B Flat Minor Piano Concerto in concerts. A seldom heard piece, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata in G Major (nicknamed ‘Grand’) captured Fima in an Olympian feat with technical agility, coupled together with the traits of tonal imagination and diversity. The Grand Sonata can be identified as an evolution from Schumann's First Piano Sonata and Mendelssohn's Songs without words; Tchaikovsky created in it a piece of orchestral dimensions rather than those of an idiomatic keyboard sonata. Right from the very first movement, Fima made clear a point that he could make music dance and sing, even without words as he demanded. There was a sense of buoyancy and mischievous agility in the opening theme, without neglecting the music's essential grandeur. The raw energy of the “Russian piano sound” was recognizable to ears of the pianophiles, but cleverly, Fima made the big chordal passages danced to expose this underrated work as a work of sleeping beauty. The second movement extracted the feelings of charm and delicacy from Fima, whose contrasting middle section imparted a feeling of epic warmth and majesty that may account for the “grandeur style” of this Sonata. The third movement is a Scherzo, in which Tchaikovsky enforced on his performer the highest technical demands. Clearly, it proved no difficulty for our virtuosic performer on stage. The Finale saw Fima openly exposed into a world of empathetic force and visceral power - his increase in momentum from Allegro Vivace allowed the thrill in this music to surface, bringing fluidity, contrasts and freedom in a happy triad.

     Three encores were given at the end from Fima to acknowledge the standing ovations from audience: Chopin’s Nocturne Op.27 No.2; Prokofiev’s Scherzo from Piano Sonata No.2 and Liszt’s Paganini Etude in E Flat Major.

     In twenty-days, Koerner Hall will announce its 2010-2011 concert season. It may be premature to expose the artist roster now. But, witnessing the degree of enthusiasm audience expressed in Fima’s recital tonight, it seems no surprise that 2010-2011 will only be more daring, more feverish, and more rewarding for concert-goers in Toronto.

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Photo Credit: Dario Acosta

Homepage: Yefim Bronfman


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