Piano man shines at Sprague

Though heavy snow somewhat dampened attendance, anticipation ran high for pianist Yefim Bronfman’s solo concert Jan. 11 at Sprague Hall. An internationally-known pianist with many well-reviewed recordings, Bronfman’s playing is deliciously refined, never harsh. One can count on him to give convincing, if occasionally unadventurous, interpretations of a great — but somewhat stodgy — repertoire. Live, however, he was far less than a reliable workhorse; in fact, he was maddeningly uneven.

Bronfman meant business. A somewhat disheveled-looking man of imposing build, he hurried onstage, bowed furtively and began. He did not sway, grimace or make any extraneous movements — he did not so much as smile at the audience, despite the obligatory standing ovation.

His authoritarian demeanor was not reflected in his playing. In fact, the concert was one of the quietest I have ever strained to hear. Bronfman seemed to revel in his inaudibility: his encore, a tiny Scarlatti sonata, was nearly drowned out by the sound of snow piling up outside. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that he can produce this effect, which is one of the most powerful in a pianist’s arsenal. On the other hand. it recurred so often during the evening that it became an affectation.

This foible was most evident in the two Schumann pieces, the sprawling “Humoreske” and the “Arabeske.” The former’s episodic nature, its lack of traditional thematic development, and its sheer length make it a treacherous choice, a true test of interpretive creativity. (Despite the title, the piece is only about as funny as one would expect a severely bipolar German romanticist to be.) A strong sense of melancholy pervades in even the most lighthearted sections, which Bronfman’s slow tempi and hushed dynamics did little to alleviate.

At its worst, his playing was completely drained of excitement; the high point, and also the most humorous episode, was when he paused to reprimand an errant cell phone owner (“Just tell them I’m not here”) with a completely straight face — afterwards, a certain defiance enlivened the performance.

The brief “Arabeske” is better served by the featherweight touch, but Bronfman’s performance was overly sentimental and lacking vitality.

Prokofiev’s early “Piano Sonata No. 2″ opened the program. Written when he was 20, the piece marked the composer’s stylistic break with his idols, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and his formation of a personal voice. The writing is remarkably self-assured and concise; it perfectly combines his trademark dry, percussive style with his gift (some would say weakness) for prettiness.

In Bronfman’s hands, the first movement became a dreamlike collage of shifting tempi. He brought out the momentary drama of countermelodies and unexpected accents, instead of smoothing the piece into an arch. At some points, this was revelatory, bringing out new aspects of a familiar piece. But it often came at the expense of the primary melody.

His best playing was during the third and fourth movements, in which he brought to life a sense of utter desolation and a bitter frolic. (I’m not sure how one would go about frolicking bitterly, but Bronfman managed it with aplomb).

The second of Prokofiev’s three “War Sonatas,” composed all at once from 1939-44, “Piano Sonata No. 7″ is Prokofiev’s most popular because of its hair-raising final movement. But it is the other two movements — especially the elegiac middle movement — that are the core of the piece and which make the effect of the finale so terrifying. The spirit of upheaval, musical and political, predominates the first movement, with its dissonant parodies of military percussion and fanfares. Here Bronfman used quietness to produce an effect of foreboding, even dread.

The slow movement begins with an ironic yet heartrending cabaret theme. As the music turns serious, so Bronfman’s playing became more satisfying. The core episode was an insistently morbid series of bell-tones, with the concluding echoes of the main melody appropriately haunting and otherworldly. After this came the opening of the finale; the effect of Bronfman’s driving syncopations was like being doused with cold water.

Though many might have used the movement as a showcase for virtuosity, he played with a slow, ferocious, machine-like energy. It was, finally, what the audience had been waiting for: some inspired, unaffected piano playing.

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