Worlds turning in Bronfman’s Beethoven and Ustvolskaya at Carnegie Hall

Tue Apr 19, 2022 at 2:59 pm
By George Grella
Yefim Bronfman performed a recital at Carnegie Hall Monday night. Photo: Steve Sherman

Pianist Yefim Bronfman’s Carnegie Hall concert was postponed from its original February 18 date until Monday night. That morning, Carnegie announced a change in the program: Bronfman would no longer be playing Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, originally slated to finish the evening. Instead, he would play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No, 7—joining two other Beethoven sonatas on the bill—in the first half, and the “Appassionata” Sonata No. 23 from Beethoven would move from the first half to the end. 

Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 4 stayed where it was, and that made for an unusual set—Ustvolskaya plus Beethoven three times. Yet there was a pared-down, granitic logic to this that was more focused and even natural than a transition to Chopin could produce. With Bronfman emphasizing extremes Monday night, there was a philosophical consistency in the concert that bridged the roughly century and a half of aesthetic and societal revolutions that separated the two composers. 

The bridge, really, was the pianist himself. Bronfman always leaves the impression of having so much to say that he never plays the same piece the same way. This is fascinating and often exciting, as it comes through his manner which combines an extroverted energy with a deeply interior thinking process. As a musician he’s an introvert who pushes a part of his internal experience out to the audience. Monday night, this meant the pleasure of sound and phrasing with an uncanny feeling of undefinable depths, like looking into a deep well and knowing there was more down there than the eye could see.

This was the kind of musicianship that renders passing technical mistakes inconsequential, but is also suspenseful in a way that may not please all listeners. Case in point was the very first music of the night, the Allegro con brio movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major. As the tempo making goes, it’s fast, and also light and quick and with a specific structure. Bronfman was fast, and also ambiguous, the phrases running along without any sense of a metrical structure or a downbeat. One was unsure if Bronfman heard it this way or if he was looking for certainty, keeping his feet going on a slippery surface until he caught his balance, with a similar feeling of anxious excitement.

The effect was intriguing, especially as the music moved along and Bronfman spelled out clearer structural lines, and it deepened the contrast with the second movement. All night, every move from major to minor, from loud to soft, fast to slow, was backlit by Bronfman. As the first movement was at the edge of control, so was the second played with a feeling of certainty and poise—slow but perfectly paced, and quiet yet weighty in a way that drew in the ear. This movement, and the Largo in Sonata No. 7 especially, had a sense of romantic melancholy that was more substantial than one is used to hearing.

These were passionate performances, and the pianist’s bold delineation of qualities worked well with Ustvolskaya’s sonata. Her music is astonishing in part because it is infrequently played, but there’s still the core which is unlike anything else—every note reduced to absolute purpose, form that wastes not even a second, effect without any affect. 

There’s a barely controlled fury at the core of her work, and Bronfman outlined this with great delicacy and clarity. The ghostly opening chords were gorgeous and alien, and Bronfman’s slow build of short repetitive phrases, first quiet then hammering, captured the closed-mouth wail of Ustvolskaya’s aesthetic.

This was stark on the surface but rich with complex feeling underneath. It also made the “Appassionata” sonata sound like a long inhalation and exhalation of breath. Bronfman was, for him, relatively understated through the opening movement, and played the Andante with a sense of dignity and poise. Even the turmoil of the final movement was held in check for most of its length, until the coda. This is some of Beethoven’s greatest composing, and Bronfman pushed both the tempo and the dramatic tension to a point where the final cadence brought the audience to its feet with cheers and yells.

Called back by the vocal ovations, Bronfman played two Chopin encores. First the Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, no. 2, then the “Revolutionary” Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, no. 12. The latter was one final rush of excitement, but the former was tremendously tender, a real period on a complex and expressive evening. Chopin was an ideal fit after all.

Emanuel Ax plays an all-Chopin program, 8 p.m. April 28.

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