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February 22, 2010

Yefim Bronfman gives brilliant performance of demanding program at Shriver Hall

Like a lot of folks, I tend to think wistfully of past times when musical giants seemed to roam the earth in great numbers -- the singers, instrumentalists and conductors who now have the word "legendary" wrapped around their names. But, you know, we really don't have it so bad today.

Consider the realm of the keyboard. There are some mighty fine pianists on the scene, capable not only of delivering technical fireworks, but of producing experiences rich in musical feeling. One of the best in this regard is Yefim Bronfman, who chose an unusual recital program for his appearance on the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening and played the heck out it.

The pianist didn't just go out in left field to find some less-often played items by famous composers for the sake of novelty; his selections had a logical flow that revealed some subtle, intriguing links between the pieces.

Before getting to the gargantuan G major Sonata by Tchaikovsky, Bronfman offered some Beethoven (32 Variations in C minor) and Schumann ("Faschingsschwank aus Wien") -- Tchaikovsky used both composers as inspirational models for his sonata, and those connections became heightened along the way.

The pianist also placed a sonata by Prokofiev (No. 2 in D minor) on the first half of the program that reflected its own influences from Schumann and, coincidentally, had a little motiv in common with the Tchaikovsky sonata -- a hint of

the ancient "Dies Irae" chant (in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's, the third of Prokofiev's -- at least to my ears).

It all added up to an eventful evening. Bronfman's brilliant pianism impressed from the start in the Beethoven Variations. There was terrific clarity in his articulation, a considerable palette of tone coloring and nuance in his phrasing. The Schumann score found Bronfman paying equal attention to its explosive energy and soaring lyricism. Although he had the printed music of the Prokofiev sonata in front of him, the pianist sounded perfectly at home; he delivered a particularly dazzling account of the whirlwind Scherzo.

The 30-minute, zillion-note Tchaikovsky sonata occupied the second half of the recital. This work gets very little attention these days (especially on these shores), probably because it has none of the indelible tunes we associate with the composer. Even Tchaikovsky denigrated the piece as "dry," but, then, he was always putting down his own stuff, so that shouldn't be used against it.

Bronfman proceeded to make structural and expressive sense out of the whole thing, getting past any dry spots by keeping phrases richly animated. He even ensured that episodes of bravura-on-steroids communicated more than mere digital action. I would have preferred a gentler, Mendelssohn-style touch in the Scherzo, to provide more tonal contrast with the ensuing final movement, but otherwise Bronfman's playing was as rich in tonal variety as in communicative power. He drew out the considerable strengths of the sonata so imaginatively that he created a riveting four-act drama. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:50 AM | | Comments (1)


Tim, did you (or any reader who was there), recognize the encore? It sounded like Bach, but I couldn't place it. By the way, I was surprised that the audience let its applause fade after the encore, thereby precluding a second encore.

Speaking of applause, members of the audience seemed to be in a race to start applauding first, the moment Bronfman lifted his hands. It makes me wonder whether the music affected them, or whether they were merely impressed with his virtuosity. Applause destroys the mood that the music creates, and, at least in a piece that ends quietly (Quartet for the End of Time, for example, which was performed at the Peabody recently), I wish that musicians or conductors would ask the audience to refrain from applauding.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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